Sea of danger: Why do Tamils flee Sri Lanka?

A Tamil boy

Australia captured headlines this week for its hardline against Sri Lankan asylum seekers. Refugee advocates were scathing, while the Government offered little explanation. So why are Sri Lankan Tamils fleeing their homeland, asks Eureka Street.

- By David Feith, Chairperson of Australia-Tamil Solidarity

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.i

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. 

In Sri Lanka, a culture of impunity exists whereby people who criticise the government may be killed. 

The civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE ended in May 2009. Since that time there continues to be a heavy military presence in the Tamil-majority Northern Province, and ongoing discrimination against Tamils and Muslims.

Read full article: Why Tamils flee Sri Lanka (Eureka Street)

In an interview with ABC Radio, former Foreign Affairs Minister and Labor Senator Bob Carr said that a great amount of 'nonsense' is being spoken by asylum seeker advocates.

He likened the Tamil Tiger ideology to that of Pol Pot and warned against accepting only the 'Tamil Tiger narrative,' saying that there is no 'apartheid' style discrimination in Sri Lanka and no evidence of mistreatment of people returned from Australia. In the past, asylum seekers have included Sinhalese and economic migrants, rather than just Tamils fleeing persecution, he said.

Mr Carr was highly critical of Former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser for drawing comparisons between Sri Lanka and Nazi Germany. To listen to the full interview at the ABC, CLICK HERE.


Australia returns asylum seekers to Sri Lanka (Vatican Radio)

A treasure map, assassination plot and kidnapping among dark secrets of Sri Lankan asylum seekers (SMH)

Waleed Aly: Tony Abbott's harsh treatment of asylum seekers is the same old story (SMH)

Advocates 'coaching' asylum-seekers to self-harm for political reasons (The Australian)

JRS Director: Pope's visit to Lampedusa 1 year ago prophetic (Vatican Radio)

2009: A Brief History of the Tamil Tigers (TIME)


PM AGENDA Sri Lankan High Commissioner denies abuse claims (Sky News)

Eric Abetz says Government is not 'disappearing' asylum seekers as fate of Sri Lankans remains unknown (ABC Insiders)

IMAGE: Reuters

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