Why Tamils flee Sri Lanka


Tamils in Sri Lanka

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 of the outrageous abuse of human rights that are common in Sri Lanka.

The civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE ended in May 2009.  In the last months of the war, thousands of civilians were killed, with reliable estimates ranging upwards of 40,000 people.

Since that time there continues to be a heavy military presence in the Tamil-majority Northern Province, and ongoing discrimination against Tamils and Muslims.

Dr. Jehan Perera, the (Sinhalese) Executive Director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka recently wrote:

The (Sri Lankan) government has made plans to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the end of the war with a “Victory Day” celebration … in the Southern Province.  But at the opposite side of the country there will be no such celebration.  The government has prohibited any public commemoration of the war’s end in the Northern Province. … The disparity between the government’s treatment of the North and South shows that the ethnic and political conflict remains, despite the end of the war.  The country is geographically and administratively unified but remains politically and ethnically divided and in a state of conflict.

The Sri Lankan government has done very little to encourage or promote reconciliation, and has not implemented many of the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (appointed by this same Sri Lankan Government).  Human rights abuses continue. This is why many organisations and countries welcomed the resolution on Sri Lanka passed at the UN Human Rights Council in March 2014, to open an investigation into alleged war crimes committed by both sides during the conflict.

Australia did not vote in favour of this resolution, which was a change in approach. In the two previous UN Human Rights council resolutions Australia supported moves to encourage Sri Lanka to investigate allegations of war crimes. The change in the Australian position is because the Australian government wants to bribe the Sri Lankan government to stop allowing asylum seekers from leaving by boat. The Australian government’s simplistic obsession with stopping the boats means it is prepared to overlook the history of persecution of Tamils, and the serious allegations of war crimes, torture, and continuing widespread human rights abuses. This is morally repugnant.

David FeithDavid Feith is a teacher at Monash College in Melbourne and chairperson of Australia-Tamil Solidarity, an organization made up of Tamil and non-Tamil Australians working together to achieve peace through justice for Tamil people in Sri Lanka. This article was first published at Asylum Insight. The image is from sangam.org

Topic tags: David Feith, asylum seekers, Sri Lanka, Sinhalese, Tamils



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Existing comments

The refugee/asylum seeker policy that successive governments have enacted, from the Howard era onwards, have all said its about stopping people from drowning at sea. This in itself is admirable but the truth is as ugly as we are starting to realise. If the reason is to stop drownings, then why don't we have patrol boats escorting them to make sure that there are no drownings? The truth of course is that the "squeaky wheel" majority of this immigrant nation are scared! Menzies used the "Reds under the bed" scare campaign to hold office for 23 years and Howard had terrorism and now we have being swamped by refugees. But scared of what? That instead of eating meat and three veg, they now have a choice of Italian, Greek, Sri Lankan, Indian etc to choose from. Perhaps they're scared of these new immigrants taking the jobs that no white Australian wants to do. May be they just dont like people that look different to them! ( I dont know of anyone that looks like me and I dont want a nation of clones!) All any humans want is to live a life of peace and rear their children far away from conflict and strife. Ask yourself, how many people do you know that want the reverse?
J. O. Novark | 09 July 2014

Tamils are fleeing from persecution by the successive Sinhala Buddhist Apartheid regimes as they continue with its chauvinistic polities towards the minority Tamils and due to the failure of International community to uphold rule of law, international law, and enforce R2P. Further it was sad that the Western leaders were fooled by the Sri Lankan regime to collaborate and provide support to the genocide of the Eelam Tamils and banning the Tamils defense force the LTTE. LTTE was a product of the Sinhala Buddhist state terrorism and trained by former Indian leaders to defend the Tamils from Sinhala state terrorism and to win the Tamils' rights. It is shame that Australia's dark side is exposed by its acts.
Shiva | 10 July 2014

Two questions David; Why have you not made mention of the atrocities committed by the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) during their terrorist campaign, including the assassination of the Sri Lankan president and Rajiv Ghandi and the murder of many thousands of Tamils who did not support them during their dictatorial occupation of northern Sri Lanka? And why were 37 of the 41 people on the boat recently returned to Sri Lanka Sinhalese? The legitimate concerns of successive Australian governments are that we do not allow active members of the LTTE to enter Australia and continue their terrorist campaign and that we do not allow people who are seeking a better economic life to enter the country illegally under the guise of being asylum seekers. Pretending that the Tamil Tigers were not a truly murderous bunch and pretending that people do not come to Australia to improve their economic situation is disingenuous at best.
seajay | 10 July 2014

Conservative Canadian PM Harper boycotted the 2013 CHOGM meeting in Colombo, the Queen didn't attend, and conservative UK PM Cameron returned home early after a tour of the Tamil area. Tony Abbott went and, further, announced that Australia would donate two coast guard vessels to Sri Lanka. When asked by a journalist about his response to the UK PM Cameron's concern at human rights issues, he uttered the words which should be engraved on the tomb of Australian decency and humanity: "In difficult times, difficult things happen".
David Moloney | 10 July 2014

Very well, then. I can accept what you tell me, Mr Feith; that the Tamils were the rebels , trained by sources outside Sri Lanka (India) and supported by the Tamil community; that the government is still hunting down those whose terrorist acts caused many innocent deaths; that the Tamils are fleeing persecution. Could you now suggest why 825 Sinhalese claiming to be refugees voluntarily returned to Sri Lanka last year and why the current bunch of 40-odd 'refugees" being sent back to Sri Lanka by the Australian government contains only 5 Tamils, the rest being 'non-discrimInated against' Sinhalese. Someone is not telling the truth and I would suggest that the many Sinhalese who come here are probably the worst offenders - not the Australian government. I note also that the Sri Lankan government says some of these people are leaving Sri-Lanka illegally. I don't claim to know what that means but am reminded of the famous Australian criminal, Tony Mokbel, who left Australia clandestinely by boat and headed for Greece. I suspected that had his boat been intercepted at sea by The Greek authorities he would have been returned to Australia. However, unlike in Australia, bribery is a way of life in some countries and allows such illegal activities to proceed unchallenged if the price is right. Bribery has found its way into some Australian institutions but is not yet a way of life. Hopefully the current enquires into corruption will root it out before it becomes institutionalised as in some countries that constantly accuse Australia of inhumane breaches of human 'rights'.
john frawley | 10 July 2014

Eureka Street has done it again. What an informative piece, David Feith. Wouodn't it be good if Scott Morrison could be persuaded to read it. News this morning that on his lightning visit to Sri Lanka he met only with Government people, no Tamil politicians. Blind determination reaches its peak with him.
Joe Castley | 10 July 2014

"I don't claim to know what that means but am reminded of the famous Australian criminal, Tony Mokbel, who left Australia clandestinely by boat and headed for Greece." If you don't claim to know what it means, why mention Tony Mokbel at all? I attended school with several boys who had left their country illegally, and we welcomed them. They were Hungarians, who had fled the Russians in 1956. (Or "Fascist, Hitlerite, reactionary, counter-revolutionary hooligans financed by the imperialist west...", according to Pravda.) I don't recall anyone here saying that they must be criminals if they flee their country; instead we assumed that it was the government's fault if they had to stop their citizens fleeing.
Simon Crase | 10 July 2014

Years ago Tamils were seen as freedom fighters in Australia. We used to sell Tamil tea after Mass in order to support them. Now they are considered to be terrorists. How things change. Thank you, David, for explaining how and why Australia changed it's opinion.
Anna | 10 July 2014

I usedthe Mokbel cas as an example of a flleing criminal escaping without detection through the passport system and simply wonder whether that is what the Sri Lankan government deems illegal. If so are we offering asylum to criminal Sri Lankans moving to new pastures.\?I
john frawley | 10 July 2014

Evidence, John Frawley? Or just wondering in public?
Simon Crase | 10 July 2014

Master Seejay, you asked two questions: "Two questions David; Why have you not made mention of the atrocities committed by the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) during their terrorist campaign, including the assassination of the Sri Lankan president and Rajiv Ghandi and the murder of many thousands of Tamils ...". . Please remember when you grow up the 'Two Wrongs don't make a Right".
Maniks@gmail.com | 10 July 2014

It is pertinent to note that David Feith is chairperson of Australia- Tamil Solidarity, one of several organisations that the Tamils in Australia have formed to pursue their interests. And it is hardly surprising to find him pushing the standard Tamil line of alleged discrimination in Sri Lanka. It is a pity when those like DF repeat the usual Tamil propaganda without verifying the facts. There are several inaccuracies in the article. For instance DF says the ‘two major political parties are Sinhalese’. This is not correct. These parties, The United National Party and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, are NOT racially based. Their members come from all ethnic groups in the island. In contrast, the parties from the predominantly Tamil, Northern and Eastern provinces, are racially based as even their names clearly indicate. So, there was the Tamil Congress, The Tamil United Liberation Front and now the Tamil National Alliance. DF states that the ‘extreme Sinhalese nationalist view’ which regards Sri Lanka as being an island sacred to Buddhism, in which non-Sinhalese have no place, makes to difficult for the Tamil and Muslim minorities to be regarded as equal citizens. The extreme nationalist Sinhalese are a small minority. We have small groups with extreme nationalistic views even in Australia. But why would the VIEWS of such small groups make it difficult for persons from minority groups to be regarded as equal citizens? And - to follow DF’s reasoning - if the views of the extreme Sinhalese nationalists are based on religion, should not the Christians feel excluded as well?
fred | 10 July 2014

Hi David, I fully agree with you on every point you have argued in your article. What the current Australian Government is doing is absolutely horrible. I could not believe that Australian Navy could handover some of the Tamil asylum seekers who came to Australia from India, to the Sri Lankan Navy. If those people came from India, at the worst they should be sent back to India, they should not have been handed over to the same perpetrators from whom they tried to escap. In my opinion, Mr. Abbott and Mr. Morrison have committed a very serious crime, in this instance. They are both so paranoid about the boat people; they have tracked Australia also along with them to a very low level, to match Sri Lanka and its politicians. In Sri Lanka, Tamil are the easy target. Sinhalese are abusing and ill-treating the Tamils at their will. Similarly, in Australia too, Tamil refugees are being discriminated and treated very differently and badly. Only recently I learned that, among the asylum seekers arrived by boat, Tamils are only 7%, but out of the asylum seekers who are forcefully returned more than 80% of them are Sri Lankan Tamils. Why the Tamil asylum seekers are being discriminated by Mr. Morrison and Mr. Abbott? Are they easy targets? Param.
Param | 10 July 2014

If you ever doubted the position of Tamils in post-colonial Sri Lanka have a look at the country's flag - the lion of Sinhala surrounded by the colours of the aura of Buddha.It is a statement for ethno-religious purity for the country.Talk to the Jesuit Refugee Services people there if you think the war's end marked the end of hostilities and discrimination. The Abbott government's political agenda is as low as that of SL
Chris | 10 July 2014

"It is pertinent to note that David Feith is chairperson of Australia- Tamil Solidarity..."; the footer to the article states his affialiation. But who is "fred"? What are his credentials? How can we judge his " These parties, The United National Party and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, are NOT racially based"? Has "fred" any evidence? What weight should we put on an anonymous assertion? Incidentally, "not" is not an acronym: there is no need to capitalize it.
Simon Crase | 11 July 2014

Cardinal Ranjith hasn't done much to help his eye on the papal visit next year needing the governments co-operation and appearance of a united front, distancing himself from Tamil bishops, religious and other Christians against on going injustices with their hundreds of signatures presented to the UN.
Lynne Newington | 13 July 2014

The 153 Tamils currently on the high seas appear to be economic refugees as they fled from India, a country where the second largest population of Tamils reside in the world. India has always been receptive to Tamils so the argument they need to flee to Australia is one of ommission of this fact
John Leary | 14 July 2014

Russian sepratists in Ukraine are described as terrorists. The Tamils who waged a similar illegal war against a legitimate government are called refugees. They don't get their own way so now they try to get here. Will we also take the Russian sepratists as refugees when they lose their illegal war?
Paul | 25 July 2014

Writer has given a new definition to the word discrimination. Tamils and other Indians in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) are a privileged lot like in other former dominions of the British-Indian Empire now the Indian Empire. When in Sri Lanka go for a walk in the Business areas of Colombo and see who owns and run them and what language you here. Check on the biggest businesses in Sri Lanka. Since the arrival of Indians in Ceylon since 1792 under the British guns they have been "discriminated" by the locals.
John | 14 December 2014

In general immigrants from Sri Lanka immigrate mostly for economic reasons, but they always claim that they come to Europe or Australian due to political reason. Dr, Mcdowell Christopher anthropologist is the chairman of the Sri Lanka studies group has done research on the refugees in the Switzerland. Dr, Mcdowell Christopher depicts the seriousness of this situation as follows; “The analytical problem with Richmond’s multivariate approach, based on a continuum of interaction between determining factors, is that of making any clear distinction between the two categories of proactive and reactive migrants. This is precisely what receiving governments are seeking to do when they reject Tamil claims for asylum on the basis of unproven persecution, seeing economic factors as predominant in the decision to leave Sri Lanka and migrate to the West. I visited Amirthalingam on a number of occasions during 1993 and 1994 and he openly discussed his reasons for leaving Sri Lanka and seeking asylum in Switzerland: It is about money. I was not ever involved in politics. I am a Karava, so is Prabhakaran, but we are not of the same opinion. My wife was a little sympathetic to the Tigers, My business wasn’t bringing in any income, we could see no way to finding good partners from the right community for our daughters so we left for Colombo. In Colombo my brother –in-law had a business that I might go into, but first we needed some money. We will need at least four lakhs (SLrs 400,000 or Sfrs 11, 500) for each daughter and I could not get that money in Sri Lank…in a good month I earned only SLrs 5,000. So I have come here for a few years until I have earned enough… perhaps three years in total… yes, I shall leave in the summer of 1994. I send back all I can to my wife, she has repaid my relative for the loan to come here and the rest is saved “(Mcdowell Christopher, 1996, 18,21).
Raja | 19 July 2015

Look, the problem with Tamil people is that they were given everything in Sri Lanka but they want the whole country. The war was their attempt to gain a country which no Tamil in the entire world has. Sinhalese people committing attrocities is only to defend a nation that has been theirs since beginning.
Angel | 07 August 2017

this article is clearly explaining the situation of Tamils the problem will come again and created by the hard hearted politician do and religious Buddhist leaders. this world should understand this situation is still same it not changing the people attack muslims they will create the civil untest and race riots again in another generation in the future thats i believing . i thanks the christian world accept Tamil minority in their country give new hope and new life according to the Teaching of Jesus.
Samraj Ratnasingam | 08 May 2018


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