Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Why Tamils flee Sri Lanka

  • 10 July 2014

Why do asylum seekers continue to leave Sri Lanka? Why does the Australian government uncritically support the Sri Lankan government? Why has the UN Human Rights Council decided to investigate allegations of war crimes in Sri Lanka? And how are these questions linked?

Systematic discrimination against Tamils exists in Sri Lanka, and has done so since soon after the country gained independence from Britain in 1948.

Tamils are a minority (approximately 18 per cent of the population), and are systematically and routinely treated as second-class citizens by the majority Sinhalese community. The two major political parties are Sinhalese, and both major parties have used anti-Tamil rhetoric and practices to gain Sinhalese political support. 

The extreme Sinhalese nationalist view regards Sri Lanka as an island sacred to Buddhism, in which non-Sinhalese have no place. This makes it very difficult for the (predominantly Hindu) Tamil and Muslim minorities to be regarded as equal citizens. Tamils advocated politically to have equal rights for decades following independence, but without success. 

This led to young Tamils taking up arms in the 1970s, and many believed that they would only achieve equal rights and justice if they could have their own separate state, Tamil Eelam. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) took control of areas in the north and east of the island, and fought for the separate state of Tamil Eelam, which explains the civil war from 1983 to 2009.

Because of the discrimination against Tamils, they have been leaving Sri Lanka since the 1960s. Many left on migrant visas, travelling by plane to Europe, Canada, USA, Australia, and other places. Many others, particularly from the mid-1980s onwards, left by boat as asylum seekers. 

Many thousands of Tamils have fled by boat to India where some live in the community, and some in refugee camps.  In more recent years, some have decided to travel to Australia by boat and seek asylum here.

In Sri Lanka a culture of impunity exists whereby people who criticise the government may be killed. No one is held accountable and no one is punished. This has been a common occurrence for many decades.

A common pattern is that a person who has publicly criticised the government is seen being taken into a white van, with no number plates, and is then never seen again. Relatives and friends can find no information about the person’s whereabouts, or whether they are alive or dead. These disappearances are one example