Among the many claims that about ‘boat people’ that are made 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 okay 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 talk given by Professor Damien Kingsbury to the Brigidine Asylum Seeker Project Discussion on 17 October 2012.