Shanika Sriyananda, in the Sunday Observer, 29 July 2012
Apart from crime stories, boat people, who risk their lives on a deadly journey to Australia have ‘decorated’ the front pages of most of the local newspapers as well as Australian newspapers. Australia, with a steady influx of asylum-seekers, has become the most sought after destination among Sri Lankans fleeing the country via Indonesia, which is the transit hub. Sri Lankan men and women, despite surveillances by the Sri Lanka Navy and being frequently arrested, leave the shores in risky boat rides arranged by local human smugglers by paying with their meagre savings.
In an interview with the Sunday Observer , Shanaka Jayasekara, Lecturer, Centre for Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism (PICT), Macquarie University of Australia said in the absence of LTTE terrorists, who restricted the exodus of youth out of the Vanni as they required human resources, now the Vanni people were risking their lives to ‘earn more dollars’.
He said the pro-LTTE lobby groups use the Sri Lankan asylum seeker issue to discredit the Sri Lankan government. “They see the media value in boatloads of Sri Lankans claiming political asylum overseas as an opportunity to keep international attention on Sri Lanka. As every boatload arrives, you will see Tamil activists defaming and discrediting Sri Lanka in the media”, Jayasekara said.
Following are excerpts of the interview:
Q: In your opinion why is there a continued exodus of refugees leaving Sri Lanka. Is it because of persecution as claimed by these refugees or is it for economic reasons?
A: Sri Lanka has one of the largest per capita expatriate populations with over one million Sri Lankans employed in the Middle East alone. In addition, large numbers of Sri Lankans are working in countries such as Italy and South Korea, the United States, Japan, Singapore, Israel and the Maldives. There is an inherent tendency among Sri Lankans to view foreign employment as short term response to their economic predicament. Take the number of prospective applicants for Korean jobs that flooded into Police Park grounds recently. Everyone wants to earn dollars instead of toiling for Rupee earnings.
If you look at the Sri Lankans in Italy as a case in points, there is a flood of Sinhalese from Negombo who have taken boats and other illegal routes to reach Italy seeking economic opportunity. There is no persecution of Sinhalese in Negombo they are attracted by the foreign currency earnings in Italy. This is the same motivation that is driving all the boat refugees to greener pastures irrespective of their ethnicity, be they Tamil or Sinhalese.
Q: Therefore, in your view these allegations of persecution are not the cause for refugees to leave Sri Lanka?
A: I think there need to be some logical basis for such allegations. Recently the UNHCR reported that over 750 refugees had voluntarily returned from Tamil Nadu in India after the end of the conflict. If there is any persecution in Sri Lanka would these refugees be returning to Sri Lanka under the UNHCR auspices. The other irrational factor is that if there was persecution in Sri Lanka, would not thousands be crossing over to India which is 22 km away, than taking a boat to Australia which is over 5000km away. Why is there no exodus to India if there was persecution in Sri Lanka. The reason is you can’t earn dollars in India, but you can in Australia.
Q: Are relatives promoting human smuggling activity?
A: Many Tamil families in Sri Lanka have relatives overseas. This has created a kind of social disparity between siblings, cousins and nephews. Some family members are earning dollars overseas, while other family members left behind in Sri Lanka are earning Rupees.
When one cousin is earning dollars overseas there is a compulsion to help the relatives in Sri Lanka. There are many arranged marriages in which overseas Tamil grooms are matched with local brides as a gateway to reach the West. Recently a Sunday newspaper in Sri Lanka offered to list Tamil matrimonial advertisements on their English internet site catering to the Tamil diaspora audience.
There are others that finance human smuggling activity to secure passage by boat to a western country. The Tamil diaspora has established themselves in host countries and now can provide support structures and legal services for new arrivals. This is no different to the Negombo Sinhalese taking boats and other routes to Italy. The initial migrants to Italy now facilitate and provide support structures for friends and relatives to come across.
Q: Has the circumstances changed after the end of the conflict?
A: During the reign of terror by the LTTE, most Tamil diaspora families had to contribute or provide material support to the LTTE. After its defeat these contributions have declined. They have more disposable income to help their relatives in Sri Lanka. Most Tamil families provide financial remittances through legal channels to support relatives in Sri Lanka. Since the end of the conflicts foreign remittances to bank branches in the Northern Province have increased significantly.
This is commendable and should be encouraged. However, the more ambitious ones want to earn the dollars overseas, not merely receive handouts from relatives. It is very much a social disparity issue at family level. In the past, the LTTE also restricted the exodus of youth out of the Vanni as the LTTE required human resources. There was no opportunity to get on boats and flee from the shores of the Vanni and escape the Sea Tigers. Today the situation is different, so people can take a chance.
Q: Why are foreign governments slow to act on illegal immigrants from Sri Lanka?
A: The July 1983 riots were a disgraceful event in Sri Lankan history. Most of the first generation Tamil migrants to the West came in the aftermath of the 1983 riots. At that time the argument of physical violence against Tamils was acceptable. In most countries Tamil migration is associated with the brutality of July 1983. The transformed environment after three decades has not been adequately highlighted. Therefore, when discussing Tamil asylum seekers the reference point still remains July 1983 riots. The debate is intentionally trapped in a single time frame. In addition the Tamil diaspora has gained significant electoral influence in many host countries. Therefore, policy making on Sri Lankan asylum seeker issues is often conditioned and framed by the electoral fallout in constituencies with concentration of Tamil voters. It not always about the truth, its about managing the politics of the issue.
Q:Is the LTTE rump involved in human smuggling activity?
A: I would say that the pro-LTTE lobby groups use the Sri Lankan asylum seeker issue to discredit the Sri Lankan Government. They see the media value in boatloads of Sri Lankans claiming political asylum overseas as an opportunity to focus international attention on Sri Lanka. As every boatload arrives, you will see Tamil activists on the media defaming and discrediting Sri Lanka. There are several categories of asylum seeker boats — boats that leave Sri Lankan shores for Cocos Islands (Australia), boats that leave Indonesian shores for Christmas Island (Australia), and boats that leave Thailand for Canada. The LTTE rump involvement in the third category of boats that leave Thailand for Canada is explicitly clear. Former members of the LTTE have provided seafaring skills and finances for human smuggling operations to Canada. The boats that leave Sri Lankan shores seemed to be organised by criminal gangs transcending ethnic differences. In several cases the crew have been Sinhalese. These criminal elements seem to be profiteering from the money coming from the Tamil diaspora. The boats that leave Indonesia are organised by ethnic gangs that work with Indonesian crew in the coastal town of Puncak and services Afghan, Iranian and Iraqi Assyrians refugees.