Tamil migration within and beyond SRI LANKA

by  Michael Roberts

This essay was also presented by the LANKA GUARDIAN web site: see http://www.srilankaguardian.org/ on 19 November 2009. The Editor of that site chose to highlight the following segment within: “Some Tamil people were caught in a pincer between the Sinhala-dominatedgovernment devil on the one hand and the Tiger demon on the other. Significantly, whether fleeing from one or the other, or, more generally,the crucible of war, many chose Tamil-speaking Tamilnadu as their destination. This critical pool of migrants has not been consideredseriously within the present debate in Australia.”


In recent months illegal migrants from Sri Lanka have been at the centre of turbulent debate in Australia. While the main focus has been on Sri Lankan Tamils that of a few Sinhalese boat people has gone under the radar. Among them were 12 Karava Catholic fishermen from the Negombo area who landed on the West Australian coast in November 2008. They expressed fears of bodily harm from both the government and the Tigers, a claim accepted blithely by human rights advocates (Weekend Australian 17-18 Oct. 2009). This tale together with that of little Brindha, the little Tamil girl highlighted on Australian television, informed my conviction that some migrants from all ethnic groups who take the illegal path indulge in “white lies”. But note this verdict did not lead me to the conclusion that they should automatically be rejected by Australia.

However, the example above of the Karava fishermen and the illegal trade which has intermittently taken clusters of young males, mostly Sinhalese, to Italy over the last 15 years is pertinent to the current debate. It undermines the singular conviction among moral crusaders that the fact of a perilous journey means that all illegal migrants have fears of persecution. Such a catholic generalisation has been one of the pieces of logic that I have been questioning.

Unfortunately, that motif was subordinated when the Australian chose “Tamil Tall Tales” as the caption for an essay which they published on 18 November after radical re-editing. While the revised text was approved by me (little option really), the new title was imposed as an editorial prerogative without my knowledge. This title has been interpreted by Tamils as a slur on their people. After this damage had been done in the interest of commodity enhancement, I asked the Editor whether she would have taken such a liberty if we were talking about a particular Aboriginal community or the Aboriginal people writ large.

This essay was published online as well and, predictably, has created a storm. Given the radical reduction of the original article it is hardly surprising that even those entering favourable comments have misinterpreted my arguments. This new essay is a further clarification. It also challenges the editorial convictions within Australia that (Australian?) readers cannot stomach anything more than 700-800 words. Be forewarned: with preamble this article runs to 1707 words.


In composing an article that eventually appeared under the heading “Tamil Tall Tales” constraints of word-limit impacted on my coverage of a complex topic. It has generated some fervent responses online. The striking title chosen by the Australian’s editors ensured such an outcome, especially from Tamil readers.

Let me thank Colin Andersen in particular for critical online comments and clarify my position. Let me now narrow my focus to the period 1983-2009. In explicit surmise, I contend that there is a mix of economic and political motives influencing Tamil outmigration in this period. As an initial statement, I propose three interlaced conclusions.

1. Political discontent of a varying character wholly directs decisions to migrate in a minority of cases.

2. Political imperative figure in a large majority of cases, albeit within a mix.

3. The economic factor plays a part in a significant minority of cases (a modification of blogger Roland’s misreading).

A further caveat is called for. The sources of political danger for individual Tamils have varied and it is misleading to think of government elements as the only source of threat and violence. The dissident Tamils of the University Teachers for Human Rights (UTHR) estimate that approximately 7000 Tamils have been killed by the LTTE up to 2001; and another thousand since then. There was internecine killing among the various Tamil fighting groups in the period 1986-90 in particular. Some members of these Eelamist forces were then pushed into the paradoxical position of working with the state regime against the LTTE, and are themselves perpetrators of violence against Tamils.

In more general terms, therefore, one can argue that a fair proportion of Tamils in the northern and eastern parts of the island fled the crucible of war. They fled to Tamilnadu or to the Colombo locality. It is mostly at the second stage, the move to some Western Eldorado with the encouragement of kin abroad, that the economic factor has kicked into the mix.


There were shortcomings in my coverage within Tamil Tall Tales. I did not place enough emphasis on the impact of the Sinhala Only language policy adopted in 1956 and the symbolic rendering of Tamils into “second class citizens” within Sri Lanka. Such events, and a number of other developments that cannot be detailed in a few words, led the Tamil parliamentarians to adopt the platform of a separate state in 1976. Some restive youth went further and formed underground militant groups committed to the extraction of liberation by force of arms.

In the context of a demographic majority of 74 percent, Sinhalese chauvinism fed these resentments by preventing devolutionary measures that may have assuaged Tamil ill-feeling. Obviously, the pogroms that I referred to were fuelled by chauvinist sentiments. Sinhalese extremism has remained a powerful force in the 1990s and 2000s. Chauvinist elements helped the Rajapakse regime into power in 2005. But the LTTE also wanted the alliance around Mahinda Rajapakse to come to power and materially aided the result by ordering all Tamils to abstain from voting, thereby denying his UNP opponent a body of voters that favoured the United National Party.

However, the existence of Sinhalese majoritarian regimes and the presence of chauvinist thinking over the past two decades do not add up to persecution as a generalised state. My previous article was directed against gross generalisations of this type. Indeed, my principal criticism is directed at Australian commentators who express such crude evaluations without an adequate understanding of the island’s complex history. Many also show incredible gullibility in swallowing the “white lies” that desperate migrants present.

Again, in highlighting the two-stage process of migration from, say, the Jaffna Peninsula, to the Colombo region from way back in time, my previous essay did not stress the political imperatives that activated such moves. People in the parts of the Jaffna Peninsula subject to LTTE rule in the 1990s had to face intermittent aerial bombing of an indiscriminate character. There were army and police atrocities every now and then, especially in the Eastern Province in 1987-1990 (sometimes responding to Tiger atrocities).

But the story is not that simple. In the Eastern Province factional warfare between the rival Tamil militant groups in 1989-90 saw the LTTE coming out on top. Thus the kinfolk of those targeted by the Tigers had strong incentives to flee – usually to Colombo, but sometimes to Tamilnadu. Likewise, the massacre of the TELO fighters in the Jaffna Peninsula in 1986 would have induced surviving TELO members (and their kin) to rapidly decamp to safer locations. In such instances the factor impelling some Tamils in all parts of the island was wholly or strongly political, but not emanating from the Colombo regime.

Some Tamil people were caught in a pincer between the Sinhala-dominated government devil on the one hand and the Tiger demon on the other. Significantly, whether fleeing from one or the other, or, more generally, the crucible of war, many chose Tamil-speaking Tamilnadu as their destination. This critical pool of migrants has not been considered seriously within the present debate in Australia.

A senior journalist in Chennai, Sathiyamoorthy, Director, Observer Research Foundation, a policy think-tank, indicated that there are presently 115 camps housing 73,241 refugees from 19,340 families, spread across Tamilnadu. Though there are legal restrictions on paper, these inmates have been free to roam outside and some have jobs in the vicinity usually as manual labourers. A further 50,000 never registered or moved out at the first available opportunity owing mainly to their improved circumstances. Those who are registered have to report to the police periodically.

The latter group, namely those socially mobile or middle class in some sense, provide the pool from which migrants to the West are drawn, normally utilising illegal channels. Take the case of a family who purchased an apartment in the same building as Sathiyamoorthy. They “had all four of his sons smuggled out to the West, the first one having become a priest and facilitated the others. The husband and wife left one fine morning, reporting to us just as they were leaving for the airport, and leaving behind a Colombo address.”

A veteran camp inmate had told Sathi that in recent years they had a few batches of new arrivals from “known LTTE villages and groups.” This camp resident would not be surprised if they are told one day that one or more of the boat people in Indonesia or Canada had spent time in their midst.

So what we see here is a two-stage process of migration from Sri Lanka where the political pressures of war have been a critical factor, but where, in some instances, hopes of economic advancement induce Tamils to head for Western countries.

Of course, that is not the only source of Tamil migrants seeking unofficial paths to Australia by boat. Some conceivably may be escapees from the internment camps for the IDPs. Again, Amanda Hodge’s investigative reporting for the Australian reveals that boats have been leaving the eastern shores of Batticaloa District for Australia. The Eastern Province has a Tamil majority and a substantial Muslim minority, while the elected Provincial Governor is Pillaiyan, an ex-Tiger fighter. There have been sporadic killings between Tamil factions and between them and Muslim gangs in Batticaloa District. This condition may induce a few individuals to seek other pastures. I do not have the expertise to decipher the on-ground complexities in this domain. Amanda’s Hodge’s descriptions have some value, but do not encourage confidence in her capacity to penetrate this labyrinth. Her bio-sketches thus far suggest to me that economic hopes are the driving force even while her informants attempt to spin a tale of personal danger.

The story is complex. The manner in which Australians have rushed to the conclusion that people who take dangerous voyages must necessarily be victims of persecution is simply simpleton. In fact, the reasoning is as flawed as incredible.


Filed under IDP camps, Indian Ocean politics, island economy, life stories, LTTE, Rajapaksa regime, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, Tamil civilians, Tamil migration, welfare & philanthophy, world events & processes

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