Boat People as Blanket Categories

Michael Roberts

Courtesy of SouthAsiaMasala, where it appeared on 11 April 2010.

The Australian government’s decision to embargo the processing of asylum-seeker applications from Afghans and Sri Lankans is widely attributed to electoral posturing. But it can also be read as a continuation of the control philosophy that has been the underlying bedrock of Australia’s border policy for decades. The fact is that the number of refugees admitted in the last 2-3 years has been a tiny tithe of the total number of migrants (for e.g. in the year 2007-08 roughly 6 percent relative to the 206,135 “permanent migrants” — see Hugo 2009)By emphasising the increase in the number of boats penetrating Australian waters, but avoiding any reference to the proportion of such boat people in comparison with (a) refugees officially admitted and (b) permanent migrants under the skilled and family reunion categories, the media has catered to the fear-mongering pressed by some politicians. In sum, therefore, one can surmise that the hoary Australian paranoia about “Asian hordes” and foreign contaminants permeates the hardline position in insidious fashion.

    The control-philosophy extends to numbers and specifics. Though Graeme Hugo is one of Australia’s leading demographers, he was not able to provide me with details on the ethnic breakdown of asylum-seekers. “I don’t know of any DIAC [Department of Immigration & Citizenship] data on ethnicity. Also they have never supplied me with any information on those who are sent back. At different times I’ve tried to get data on people who are not accepted for settlement and have been rejected,” he told me on 10 January 2010.

    A recent news item revealed that of the 4529 boat people in the period 2009-2010, 55% (2506) were Afghan and 20 per cent (945) Sri Lankan. It is the internal ethnic breakdown however that is significant because the grapevine information indicates that most Afghans are Hazara and most Sri Lankans Tamil. That same news item indicated that 80 Sri Lankans had been sent back – a revelation of sorts that should interest Professor Hugo. This snippet underlines the manner in which the shrouds constructed around the topic by DIAC restricts investigators and the public from deriving a full picture of the situation.

    The snippet about 80 “Sri Lankans” repatriated can, however, be a misleading “fact” without ethnic specifics. Media reports on the Sri Lankan context have misled most Australians into thinking that the boat people from Sri Lanka are Tamil. However, an Australian social worker who was on Christmas Island in early 2009 indicated that the majority at that stage were Sinhalese. From news snippets and grapevine sources my conjecture is that the 80 Lankans who were repatriated were all Sinhalese, or mostly Sinhalese. This process and the arrival of new boats means that the Sri Lankans on Christmas Island now are indeed mostly Tamil, though the presence of Sinhala interpreters at the facility demonstrates that some Sinhalese remain.

    But it is with reference to the category “Tamil” and the conditions in Sri Lanka that the blanket generalisations in the presentation of news mislead the Australian public. It is as if the Australians cannot digest complexity and must be presented with simple nursery rhymes.

    The situation of Tamils within Sri Lanka differs according to region and is obviously subject to even further difference in local and familial trajectories. Comprehending the regional breakdown is a necessity for any decent evaluation of both the degrees of difficulty and sources of difficulty faced by the Tamils. Limiting oneself to the period dating from the ceasefire of 2002 to the end of war in May 2009, six broad regions can be demarcated

  1. The Jaffna Peninsula under army occupation;
  2. The northern Vanni and the eastern segment of the Peninsula that had been in Tiger hands from 1990 and constituted the LTTE state of Eelam;
  3. The Eastern Province — itself differentiated into the Trincomalee and Batticaloa Districts;
  4. The Vanni locality with a Tamil-majority and a Sinhala minority that was under army control and subject also to Tamil paramilitary outfits, one time liberation fighters who had been pushed into alliance with the state because of LTTE attacks;
  5. The substantial body of Tamils in the locality of Colombo and the Western Province;
  6. The Tamils in the plantation districts in the central and southern highlands, the greater apart of whom were descendants of relatively more recent labour migrants from India.

It requires emphasis that roughly 55 per cent of the Tamil population live outside the regions A, B and C according to a guesstimate from Professor Gerald Peiris of Peradeniya University (email, 12 April 2010). 

    To detail each region would call for page-length descriptions in each case. So let me restrict myself to illustrating the significance of such differentiation through the absent details in the recent ABC Foreign Correspondent documentary (Hell and High Water, 2009). The feature victim in that tale was one Pathmanathan from the Eastern Province: an asylum seeker who was on a boat snaffled by the SL navy and then incarcerated briefly till he secured bail. Followed by the intrepid ABC personnel to his home area Pathmanathan reiterates his determination to migrate to Australia; while pursuing his “passion” for cricket on a village paddock (with helmet and pads mind you) he affirms that he never supports the Sri Lankan team when they play international cricket – for his heroes are the Aussies and South Africans.

   How come? The key points have been noted in passing. His father and one uncle had been killed in the past (no dates provided). Thus we are presented with a picture of the Sinhalese government persecuting Tamils.

   This is where simplification can distort. Few Australian viewers would be aware of the tortuous history of the Batticaloa region from the years 1987 to 2009. Atrocities were committed on a significant scale in the years 1987-2000 by the many forces active in this region: viz., government, LTTE, former PLOTE and EPRLF elements, the Rafeek group et cetera. Few Australians would know that in 2004 during the ceasefire period a leading LTTE general, Karuna, had led a massive breakaway of Tiger cadres from the Eastern Province, though others from the area stood by the LTTE. This resulted in a mini-war between the Eelam state forces and the Karuna elements. Karuna was defeated, but some remnants functioned as guerillas within LTTE-controlled regions and ultimately assisted the Colombo war machine to regain control of the whole of the Eastern Province in 2007.

    Region C, the Eastern Province, therefore has had a different history to Region B, the Vanni where, we are told, such individuals as the 28-year old Sasi had “got it from both sides” (Paul Maley, The Australian, 9 April 2010).In the Eastern Province, in fact, it was entirely feasible for one family to have been victimised by three or four ‘sides’, though one would have to explore the details of each such claim and not accept any old tale of woe as naïve listener. That is why any investigator would have asked Pathmanathan when his close kinfolk were killed and by whom. Without such probing and without specifics, Pathmanathan as a Tamil standing for all Tamils in Sri Lanka misleads.

      Of course, we know full well that it is a simple tale that drives a message home. That is why storytellers, journalists and documentary film-makers keep their tales minimalist. To distinguish, say, a Top End from a Tasmanian clime in the political environment of Sri Lanka or Afghanistan would be too much clutter for the Australian audience. This is the forceful logic of simplicity. Distortions arising from such a modality matter not one iota. Story-weaving is about powerful shot, not truthful complexity.


ABC, “Hell and High Water,” content/2010/ s2814960.htm.

Graeme Hugo, “Refugee and Humanitarian Settlement in Australia: Recent Trends,” Presentation to Symposium on Child Refugee Health and Wellbeing, National Wine Centre of Australia, Adelaide, 29 October 2009

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