Boat People to Australia: A Comment on The Social Architects’ Survey and Twist on the Tale

Michael Roberts, 24 July 2012

An anonymous syndicate named The Social Architects conducted an investigation into the circumstances encouraging Sri Lankan Tamils to migrate from Sri Lanka in trawlers and other boats in order to seek illegal entry into Australia. In the context of the recent spate of boats reaching Australia and others stopped and seized by the SL authorities, this is both a welcome and enterprising move. Whether the analysis is rigorous or perceptive is another question and readers are directed to the Groundviews blogs for some reactions.

One blog is a memo drafted by me while on holiday and on the move. The memo does not purport to be comprehensive in its review and in its coverage of the topic. The issue is a complex one and requires attentiveness to a longer history. I present it here so that it can draw a wider audience and supplement it with a list of my essays on the topic as well as stray items by Australian and other journalists. Both my essays on “Taken in by Tamil Tall Tales”[i] and “Crude Reasoning” drew sharp fire from bloggers and these provide significant contributions to our understandings of the range of viewpoints out there.

This bibliography should not be seen as comprehensive. However it is instructive that few of the journalists seem to have read any of this work. That is not surprising –one has the impression that most reporters have little time or inclination for research. Whether the TSA combination should follow this tendency is another matter.

Memo from Roberts as Comment in GV, 21 July 2012

The SA survey opens new ground though several unsubstantiated conclusions are presented in a definitive voice. It strikes me that the investigators are also landlubbers. Though one myself, let me note considerations that indicate significant omissions and potential mis-readings that reduce the strength of the article

  1. May-September is the calm season on the eastern coast in contrast with the spell when the north eastern monsoon envelops the area
  2. If small boats with 15-20 went out as feeders to the bigger boats/trawlers destined for Australia it would be feasible to launch these at umpteen spots on the eastern coast under cover of darkness during this phase of the tides.
  3. Along most of Sri Lanka’s coastline there are numerous fishing boat and trawlers in operation so naval personnel at sea must be able to discern that a boat is not on a normal fishing mission.

These ‘simple’ considerations call into question the reasoning that underpins the TSA argument: namely, that in the light of considerable ‘militarization” in the north east (a favourite hobby horse of Tamil activists of all shades) the military could easily monitor the coast, ergo they are complicit in the smuggling.

Thus the TSA combine display both (A) intellectual poverty and (B) ideological prejudice. The analytical failure A above is that of office-bound personnel, individuals cloistered in urban dwellings without their feet set within the pragmatics of field, swamp and surf.

That said, corruption and complicity from state functionaries, both civil and security personnel, in the processes of smuggling is a strong possibility –after all the IDP camps at Menik Farm leaked like a sieve in mid-2009 because of assistance from functionaries (and two Ministers if grapevine tale is valid) in return for cash. A Tamil informant laughingly told me that it was akin to package tours: so much to get to Colombo, so much to get to India…… If true then, why not now one can propose in question form.

Again while young Tamils may have particular political reasons for their outmigration desires that do not apply to other Lankans, foreigners reading the TSA essay and its commentary should place the debate in wider context. The economic imperatives that inspire outmigration cannot be comprehended without a broader survey. Young Muslims and Sinhalese are also hustling and bustling –and busting –to get abroad. The recent stampede by young males to get application forms for official labour migration to Korea is just one illustration. Research in the Negombo area would probably unearth a longish history of chain migration n to Italy in particular, promoted by stories from Italy, chain networks linking earlier migrants to new prospects and monetary flows from kinsfolk abroad, etc etc. In the late 1990s and early 2000s the illegal journeys were by trawler all the way to Italy –no less dangerous/facile than journeys to Australia [and certainly not as inevitably dangerous as Aussie people think because well-equipped Lankan trawlers (with GPS?) regularly fish off NW Australia and such places as the Seychelles and Mauritius].

A modern trawler is a body of capital. Well-heeled entrepreneurs in human smuggling would want to use their boats again and again since the loss of a boat is no small matter. The shonky entrepreneurs may try to make a killing by using an older boat that can be sunk or plead distress to draw aid from Australian ships; and by packing it heavy with migrants. Both these statements, I stress, are conjectures.

My memo as a whole is a land lubber comment, albeit a land lubber born and bred beside the sea.. Thus, one needs to draw in a local Lankan seafarer’s expertise on such issues. Maybe even a foreign yachtsman sojourning in Galle harbour could inject some ‘ground’ expertise to this debate.  However, for anyone to think that military personnel could easily discern boats with migrants seems CRASS to me.

The people (whether Tamil-Lankan, Sinhala-Lankan. Muslim-Lankan, Hazzara-Afghan , Pakistani or Indian) who venture forth in this clandestine manner from Sri Lanka are not being trafficked in the manner of prostitute chains and child-slaves. One can surmise that in their thinking they are exploiting illegal paths towards self-advancement. That some are ill-informed about the risks of sea-voyage and far too insouciant about their future prospects abroad is probable. However, as other bloggers have stressed, they are not being trafficked in the sense of bonded labour.

As closing note – a fluid kind of note — there is yet another surmise that can be essayed with greater certainty: few of these would-be asylum-seekers are aware that they are going to be sea sick. Sea-sickness is gut-wrenching, bloody awful. I am a land lubber who has experienced it once, way back in the Bay of Biscay. It remains indelible memory, an experience to be avoided at all costs. Landlubbers note.

NB: This memo was drafted on Thursday last after the Harriet Mansell blog in GV– but I am on the road in UK and had no internet access till today Sunday.

SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY – Articles by Michael Roberts

* “Tamil Migration within and beyond Sri Lanka,” 5 October 2009,

* “Taken in by Tamil Tall Tales,” 4 Nov 2009,

* “Adjutant Australia: Controlling Boat People,” 7 Nov 2009,

* “Crude reasoning,” 17 November 2009,

* “Speaking from Ignorance: Australians on Sri Lanka & Its Boat People,” 4 December 2009,

* “ ‘Alex’ Kuhendrarajah and the Australian media,” 20 January 2010,

* “Boat People as Blanket Categories,” 19 April 2010,

* “Aussies swallow Lies and Rajapaksas miss a Trick,” 31 Oct. 2010,

* “From “Leaky Wooden Boats” to the Imbecile Asian,” 27 December 2010 =

* “Missing the Boat: Australians at Sea on Asylum-Seekers,” 19 October 2011,


Charles de Havilland 2012 “Sri Lanka UNICEF expands family reunion programme,”

Ben Doherty 2011 “Lost in translation: Tamil refugees in India and their dangerous gambles,”

Ben Doherty 2012 “Tamils: why we get on boats,” Sydney Morning Herald, 21 July 2012,

The Canadian Press 2010“Some Tamil boat people already rejected  in UK,”

Debbie Guest 2012 Tamil boat people forom the Merak speak of betrayal,”

Noel Nadesan 2011

Kalinga Seneviratne, Western Media Gullibility makes Asylum-seeking Good Business,” Tempo, 2 November 2009, pp. 36-37.

The Tamil Boat People Controversy,

Chamikara Weerasinghe 2011 “Resettlement of Tamil Refugees in India within Sri Lanka in Progress,”

Lorne Waldman 2012 “How we should deal with the tamil boat people,”–how-we-should-deal-with-the-tamil-boat-people

Shamindra Ferdinando, “Deportation only antidote to human smuggling– SLN Chief tells Aussie HC,” Island, 21 July 2012,

Stephen Fitzgerald, “Oceanic Viking asylum-seeker stand-off became an international circus,” The Australian, 4 January 2010,

Amanda Hodge, “Ex-Tamil Tiger Kunam awaits 13-cylinder trip,” The Australian, 29 October, 2009,

Suvendrini Perera, “Who’s Hearing The People Smuggling ‘Message’? 15 December 2009,

Kalinga Seneviratne, “Western Media Gullibility makes Asylum-seeking Good Business,” Tempo, 3 November 2009, pp. 36-37.

Gobie Rajalingam,Boat people a symptom of Sri Lanka’s dark side,” 14 October 2009.

Angus Whitley, “Australia, Sri Lanka Sign Legal Pact to Fight People Smuggling,” 10 Nov 2009,

Paige Taylor 2011 “Little Brindha rejected by the Immigration Department,”

[i] This title was imposed by the Australian editor and was not mine – nor my main thrust.


Filed under asylum-seekers, australian media, ethnicity, life stories, people smugglers, politIcal discourse, Rajapaksa regime, reconciliation, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, Tamil civilians, Tamil migration, tamil refugees, world events & processes

7 responses to “Boat People to Australia: A Comment on The Social Architects’ Survey and Twist on the Tale

  1. Barry Romlet

    Australians are lassy and there have huge amount of land acquired from defenceless aborigine, why not world share their plundered fortune. It is so good that Aussies are trying to show there are good despite their checkered convict history It is nice to see more boats arriving to spoit their soup.

  2. Demel Sam

    Good to see more boats arriving to cultivate waste land left by lassy ausssies.

    De mel

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