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Why Tamils still flee war-ravaged Sri Lanka

Politics can drive many false claims about refugees, among them the notion that suffering and persecution ends after a war officially concludes.

Among the many claims that are made about “boat people” in order to fulfil particular political agendas, one is that when a war is officially concluded then people who live in the once afflicted area have nothing more to worry about. As a result, they do not have a legitimate claim for protection against persecution.

If people flee such an area, the assumption is that they are “economic” refugees, hoping to “queue jump” in order to secure a better life for themselves. This has been the claim made about refugees fleeing Sri Lanka. This claim is morally wrong and it is wrong in fact.

From 1983 until 2009, a number of Tamil groups, eventually coming under the banner of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Tamil Tigers), fought a bitter, bloody and often ruthless war to establish a separate ethnic Tamil state in Sri Lanka’s north and east. The war was a consequence of earlier anti-Tamil rioting.

Many Tamils believed that, as a consequence of their structural exclusion from Sri Lankan society, through the imposition of a discriminatory language policy, job opportunities and education, they had no choice but to establish a separate state. Now many Tamils they have no choice but to leave.

It is true that the Tamil Tigers developed (if not quite invented) the idea of suicide bombing, that they attacked civilian as well as military targets and that they were ruthless in their own internal policies. As such, in keeping with the post-9/11 rhetoric, they were eventually declared as a terrorist organisation.

It is also true that the Sri Lankan government, its army and its militias, also attacked civilian as well as military targets and that they were brutal towards Tamils. Since the end of the war, the government has even become oppressive towards majority ethnic Sinhalese. But, as a government, they were spared international opprobrium even as, in the last stages of the war, they engaged in what can reasonably only be described as war crimes and crimes against humanity.

In the last phase of the war, some 40,000 Tamils, mostly civilians, were killed by indiscriminate government fire into the Tamil Tiger’s last stronghold. The survivors were imprisoned and, while most eventually released, many were also summarily executed.

Many of those who were released have been unable to return to their homes and land, much of which has since been occupied by the army or an increasing number of previously landless Sinhalese settlers moving north. Tamils are under constant surveillance, have to inform the police of where they live and, worst of all, the “disappearances”, though reduced, are now  routine.

To say that Sri Lanka’s war has ended is, nominally, correct. But to say that the state no longer persecutes Tamils is, at best, intentionally blind.

As the once liberal Sri Lanka state becomes increasingly authoritarian, even ethnic Sinhalese and other minorities who speak against the limitations on once cherished freedoms, often find themselves being jailed, disappearing or showing up murdered. Sri Lanka’s journalists are a particularly vulnerable group, along with human rights activists.

This, then, helps explain why some of the desperate Sri Lankans now getting on boats are Sinhalese, as well as Tamil. Many are in genuine fear of their lives in what has descended into an authoritarian state. Sri Lanka is a democracy, but it is one in which a militant majority can openly persecutes anyone who does not agree with their increasingly nationalist chauvinist views.

People become refugees for many reasons, but desperation is always the driver. No-one willingly gives up their home and their community and then attempts to undertake a life-threatening journey for any reason other than they believe their future is under threat.

In terms of the criteria for being granted refugee status, refugees from Sri Lanka’s post war oppression easily meet that. What is morally reprehensible, though, is the insistence that if the war is over then all is well, so it is OK to return asylum seekers to certain prison, perhaps worse. It is also morally bereft to not acknowledging that victors can continue to behave in ways that continue the atrocities of the war they have won.

Compounding this, Australia has been working closely with the government of Sri Lanka to thwart the departure of refugees, for Australia and elsewhere. This is not because these people do not meet the criteria for being refugees, but because it suits a narrow domestic policy agenda that is driven by disinformation, ignorance and, underlying it all, the dog-whistle call of racism.

As a country that claims to respect human rights, Australia should join in the international condemnation of Sri Lanka’s persecution of its own citizens. And, if there is no change, we can continue to reasonably expect more Tamils, and other Sri Lankans, to want to come to our shores seeking protection.

*This is an edited version of a lecture to be given by Damien Kingsbury entitled “Why are Tamils Fleeing Sri Lanka?”, to the Brigidine Asylum Seeker Project Discussion, at 7.30 pm tonight at St Josephs Hall, 274 Rouse Street, Port Melbourne

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  • 1
    klewso
    Posted Wednesday, 17 October 2012 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    I have no qualms about sending back the “economic refugees” - what I do object to is politicians/people using that brush to tar them all, for their own political purposes.

  • 2
    Posted Wednesday, 17 October 2012 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    Well-expressed, thankyou. An aspiring totalitarian government will use a specific ethnic or social group as whipping boy, target and threat, focussing the frustration, anger, confusion and fear of the population on a group which can’t effectively fight back. Once that group is defeated, the government will persecute others it perceives as a threat: those who question, those who know, those who maintain community and familial bonds. In the end, everyone is a threat except you and me, and I’m not sure about you.

    Government paranoia is incompatible with democracy, which requires actually listening to the people.

  • 3
    Dion Giles
    Posted Wednesday, 17 October 2012 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    Are the adverse secret police reports on Tamil refugees as security threats really based on threats to Australian security or are they based on the threats of their presence in Australia to cosy relations with the butchers whose guns crushed (for now) the Tamils’ right to self-determination?

  • 4
    Warren Joffe
    Posted Wednesday, 17 October 2012 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

    The idea that the Tamils are security threats to Australia is indeed ridiculous and ASIO ought to be ashamed at giving cover to politicians who want to say so. After the Tamil Tigers caused the loss of civilian lives in an Air India plane brought down in the sea in the 1990s the Tamil diaspora which supported them put its foot down and threatened to withold support if foreigners were harmed.

    It makes much more sense to accept Tamils than Sudanese and Somalis who have been sitting round in East African refugee camps for years. Tamils would become taxpayers quite quickly, on average, and soon fit in as potential citizens. The most cost-effective way of helping the Africans by a very wide margin is to help them in Africa with job-creating schemes for health-care and education.

  • 5
    Student T
    Posted Tuesday, 23 October 2012 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    As a country that claims to respect human rights, Australia should join in the international condemnation of Sri Lanka’s persecution of its own citizens.” Yes we should, though half the commenters here would accuse us of being racist and make some kind of ridiculous comparison with aborigines.

    And, if there is no change, we can continue to reasonably expect more Tamils, and other Sri Lankans, to want to come to our shores seeking protection.” No we shouldn’t.
    The Sri Lankan Tamils should go to Tamil Naidu in India. Many do. India is 35 kilometers from Sri Lanka. You could swim it.

    Cue: But India is not signatory to the UN convention blah, blah, blah

  • 6
    Warren Joffe
    Posted Wednesday, 24 October 2012 at 6:25 am | Permalink

    Have you ever tried getting an Indian visa of any kind? Indian bureaucracy would beat the USSR’s or even Czarist Russia’s for capacity to drive them slowly mad while waiting indefinitely?

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