Asylum Seekers from Lanka: No Solutions in Sight

Galle Literary Festival 2008 Michael Roberts

Beset by an upsurge of asylum-seekers arriving by boat from Sri Lanka, Australian government and media personnel continue to rely on the tired shibboleths of the past. Three shortcomings hinder their evaluations.  Let me stress three points briefly.

  1. The increase in migration is largely due to the snowballing effect of chain migration with Sri Lankan kinsfolk and friends who have migrated to the Western countries over the last forty years assisting aspirant relatives and friends to find the monies for the journeys (legal or illegal); while intra-familial dynamics encourage poorer relatives in Lanka to try and emulate their cousins in the West by getting across to the new Eldorado.[1]
  2. Contrary to Australian perceptions the journeys by boats are not inevitable death traps. If one excludes the instances of boats from Indonesia that have come a cropper, I know of only two or three from Sri Lanka that have run into real difficulties (as distinct from manufactured sinking within sight of big ships). I challenge people to provide contrary evidence in circumstances where the “boat people” have satellite phone connections.
  3. With reference to Tamil Sri Lankans the Australian evaluations are directed by the concept of “persecution” – with the alternative being “economic migration.” This is simpleton. As such, it is misleading. “Persecution” is a gross tool and does not allow for feelings that are short of terror. There is, for one, such a thing as “harassment.” There is also the possibility of “alienation” among the Tamils arising from a sense of marginalization (genuine, exaggerated or imagined).

SMUGGLER BOATS -LAKE HOUSE Apprehended trawler with aspiring asylum-seekers — Lake House

These shortcomings, believe it or not, are an improvement on the overall scenery of Australian reportage on Sri Lankan migration. Way back in 2008/09 most Australian media personnel and the Australian public considered any Tamil asylum-seeker to be a persecuted being and, thus, ipso facto worthy of open-arms acceptance.[2]The notion that there could be economic imperatives was rarely entertained. Again, there was near-total ignorance about a significant fact: namely, that there had been something like 250-350,000 thousand SL Tamils who had fled to southern India over the years 1983-2002;[3] and that in late 2009 there were “115 camps housing 73,241 refugees from 19,340 families spread across Tamilnadu,”[4]while another 40,000 or so were surmised to live outside the official camps. As a result they were unaware that Alex Kuhendarajah and many of those on the Jaya Lestari were in the second or third stage of their migratory flow and had left from India.[5]

alex-59252e23-9dd3-4b68-b76c-b74b44e58eec Alex on TV taking Australians for a ride

Furthermore, the notion that Sri Lankan Tamils could be also motivated, partially or wholly, by desires to advance their futures economically through better jobs or educational avenues was rarely considered in media stories. It was assumed that boat journeys in “leaky wooden boats” were inevitably dangerous and that this was testimony to conditions of “political persecution” in Sri Lanka.

This image of Tamils in Sri Lanka was assiduously and effectively perpetuated by the sophisticated LTTE and/or Tamil networks in Australia and elsewhere in the West. Several Tamils with LTTE leanings were embedded in the Green Party, while also sustaining strong friendship with some reporters and intellectuals in the universities. Refugee and human rights advocacy spokespersons interlaced with these overlapping networks (especially in Sydney and Melbourne). The advocacy personnel have an interest in maximizing the tale of woe from Sri Lanka and thereby maximizing their clientele. This meant that, so to speak, every goose has been a swan; and that no boat person has ever relayed a lie. Even the few Sinhalese who arrived on boats and landed in Australia have been deemed “persons at risk.”[6]

In recent years, fortunately, this ignorance has been partially removed by documentaries  composed by Channel Seven and SBS; while such journalists as Mark Davis, Tim Noonan, Ben Doherty and Amanda Hodge have brought new information into the orbit of those Australians (a minority surely) who bother with such topics.[7] Thus, the force of “economic migration” has now entered centre-stage in the public mind – in part because rednecks and the Liberal Party are thumping this contention.

In the process, the contribution of political factors towards the economic ventures of Tamil Sri Lankans is sometimes neglected. This brings me to Point C: it is conceivable that some Tamil asylum-seekers who are seeking greener economic pastures have also been directed by a sense of alienation from the SL state and the Rajapaksa government. It is also possible that some former LTTE personnel released from the detention centres as “rehabilitees” may have resented the occasional checks on their whereabouts by security agents and deemed it harassment. Indeed, 34, or 1.4 per cent, of the 2409 odd Tamils on boats impounded by the SL Navy in 2012 up to 19th October were former Tigers (the 2409 making up 79.7 percent of the total of 3020 caught).[8] One of my friends in the Vanni has recently referred to such harassment and deemed it counter-productive.

To this day, moreover, Australian perceptions have been coloured by a form of Orientalism that sees Asia as a source of contamination. This is germane to my Point B. Such an outlook is embodied in the term “leaky wooden boats” and the seemingly unshakeable conviction that trawlers sailing to Australia are inevitably placing their (overcrowded) passengers at risk. Australians remain unaware that multi-day Sri Lankan trawlers armed with GPS regularly visit the Seychelles area and the north western coastal sweep of Australia to fish and then return to the island.   A few sensational instances of fishing boats from Indonesia which have sunk off Christmas Island or off Java have allowed Aussies to latch unto questionable generalizations.

In the first instance one has to separate the Indonesian figures from those boats sailing from Sri Lanka and India. We need firm figures of the number of boats that have reached Australian offshore or onshore locations from (1) Indonesia, (2) India and (3) Sri Lanka over the last four years; with a guesstimate of those believed to have sunk or got into serious difficulties. It appears that official sources maintain a silence on such critical questions and that reporters have not been able to breach the fortress.

What happens to the boats that make it? Are they considered vermin-ridden? Is that fierce Australian customs policy of rejecting wooden artifacts from Africa and Asia applied to the boats? Have Ashmore and Christmas Islands become crematoriums for “leaky wooden boats”? That is a conundrum for enterprising Aussie reporters. It serves to underline my point about Orientalist readings and the recrudescence of the “Yellow Peril” of the nineteenth century in this new form.

No Win Situation for Sri Lanka: The Government of Sri Lanka (GSL) may be gaining some kudos from the Australian government and receiving high-level delegations on the subject of asylum-seekers. However, in the face of the Australian media world, GSL and Sri Lanka encounter a coin which reads “heads they win, tails we lose.”

Tamil migrants inn colob mbo Nabbed: would-be asylum-seekers await processing in Colombo

During the year 2012 the Sri Lankan Navy and other agencies have worked as an outsource arm of the Australian government and apprehended over 3500 budding asylum-seekers on the high seas or on land. This costly work comes at a heavy recriminatory price. A fierce Tamil nationalist such as Bishop Rayappu of Mannar has been quoted in headline articles contending that “intimidation and harassment” inspire Tamils to venture on dangerous journeys.[9]Ben Doherty referred in September 2012 to three alleged instances of “torture” (two Sinhalese and one Tamil); while a more recent article presents a photograph of deportees from Australia being marched to a court hearing, spoke of their “incarceration” and detailed the terribly overcrowded conditions they faced in jails, while highlighting claims that they feared for their life.[10]These late 2012 articles have also criticised the manner in which the Australian authorities have processed and rejected claims, while deploying the allegations of refugee advocates in strong voice as one facet of this reportage.

No Australian reporter has asked the question how a place like Robe or Whyalla would cope if some 50 or 120 Aussies (or, if we merge centuries, Kanaks or Chinese miners!!) were arrested one day in one swell swoop and had to be placed in a local jail that night prior to a court visit. This is what occurs regularly when the SL Navy apprehends asylum-seeker boats.

The process of asylum-seeker apprehension results in the Sri Lankan policing and court system being totally swamped by numbers. The GSL is so mechanical in its operations that it is unlikely that they have computed the man-hours spent in pursuing this policy – counting the hours spent by Navy personnel, policemen, CID personnel and court officials on processing these “intakes.” Such man-hours can be audited as costs; and then added to the costs of feeding those jailed and the SL Navy’s patrolling expenses. In sum, GSL would have a tidy sum to place before the Australian ‘king” (Bob Carr it is in December).

But who pays? GSL pays. GSL – and thus Sri Lankan society — then gets slammed in the Australian press for its terrible jail-conditions and for the continued persecution/harassment of Tamils.  It is a no-win circumstance.

boat-people-cartoonNo-Win for Australia too: The Australian government also confronts a situation it cannot overcome. The snowball process of chain migration in search of economic betterment is irreversible. It directs Sinhalese, Muslim Moors, Muslim Malays and others from Sri Lanka as well as Tamils. Those few who can earn points and take the legal or humanitarian route to Australia (or the West) will pursue these avenues. But a good segment of others less well-placed will be prepared to take the boat journeys to Australian offshore islands.

PRADDEEP LUSENA Pradeep Lusena told the Australian that he intends trying again – Pic from Australian online 

Australians are now aware that their media campaign in Sri Lanka via the International Office of Migration is not penetrating the constituency they are reaching out to; and that several individuals who have been apprehended are set on venturing forth once again.[11] Such patterns of action undermine the prevailing Australian conviction that these boat journeys are invariably dangerous. It is significant that, in contrast to Tamil refugees in India, hardly any of the Tamil Sri Lankans tapped by Tim Noonan, Amanda Hodge and Mark Davis spoke of boats that had not reached their destination. A researcher friend presently working at a major port area in the Eastern Province of Lanka informs me that there is one boat which left in August 2012 about which no one has news; and that a couple of boats have had engine failure and been picked up by passing ships.[12] Such exceptions do not serve as deterrence.

As startling is the viewpoint that prevails among the youth in another coastal locality in Sri Lanka: they consider going to Australia by boat is “a fun game.” At one level such a shorthand image suggests a fantasy world of wishful thinking. But, arguably, such attitudes would not be etched so deeply if stories of missing boatloads had been circulating in the rumour circuits among Tamils in Sri Lanka.

In any event the carefree attitude embodied in the idea of a fun-journey to Australia and its Eldorado highlights the strength of the economic aspirations guiding so many Tamils; and, indeed, so many Sri Lankans from all the ethnic communities. Australians interested in this aspect should also investigate (1) the process of male youth workers departing for Korea and the frantic efforts made to secure application forms for this path; and (2) the long-standing process of short-term worker migration to the Gulf States and Middle East as well as Singapore and Indonesia. The interview with Sathis Spencer conducted by one Australian reporter at should be mandatory viewing for Aussies interested in the topic. This reading should be complemented by the hot anecdotal information from two Sri Lankans in the field in the northern and eastern coasts presented as “A Fun Game” early this December.[13] The problem here would be the Australian refugee advocates: they are likely to reject such presentations. They are enclosed in a bunker of their own making, a form of delusion that is not wholly dissimilar to the fantasy world of young Tamils who view boat-trips to Australia as fun.

The Australian government therefore faces an unenviable impasse. Perhaps they should focus on assisting Sri Lanka’s development programmes in selected localities so that gainful employment is boosted. But, then, raising income levels in selected localities through developmental investments will only provide local residents with greater capital for illegal boat voyages.

Concluding Remarks: This line of critical commentary does not lead me to the conclusion that Australia should pursue a tough policy and summarily deport most asylum-seekers from Sri Lanka if the legal/political labyrinth ever permits such a course. Projections of Australian demographic trends[14]indicate that youthful migrants would be a welcome addition to the aging population.

What stands in the way of a pragmatic loosening of programmes devoted to the deterrence of illegal migrants is the ideology that sustains it. Australian egalitarianism is at the root of Australia’s failure to cope with the issue of illegal asylum-seekers. Egalitarianism is embedded within the attachment to the rational bureaucratic mode of differentiating migrant applications. Australians also find cheating obnoxious. Using those awful people, people smugglers, to penetrate Australia’s sacred shores is considered a form of cheating. It is also seen as disorderly. The dominant Australian mind-set values order, cleanliness, and an impersonal bureaucratic process that treats everyone as equals. No refuse should mar one’s lawn or garden. Asylum-seekers are ‘refuse’. Leaky wooden boats are contagious vermin.[15]

Given the impossibility of stopping the illegal flows, however, is it not expedient to bend with the tide and to accept a fair number of illegal asylum-seekers — even if it reduces the entry of some refugees more deserving?

Ah, but there is a catch down this track too is there not? Loosening the controls will inspire even more smuggling and more illegals.

It is Catch 22 every which way.

Bunker down Aussie Volk: Asia looms.

***********                                      REFERENCES

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

Abeywickrema, Mandana Ismail 2011 “Rehabilitation and Re-Integration of Former LTTE Cadres,” Sunday Leader, 9 January 2011.

Croos, Fr. J., Deanne Uyangoda  & Ruki Fernando 2011 “Threats, Harassments and Restrictions on Former Detainees and Their Families in Vanni,” 11 May 2011, globalpeacesupport. com/post/2011/05/14/

Daily News 2010 “Ex-LTTE cadres well looked after — IOM Chief,” Daily News, 18 December 2010.

Ferdinando, Shamindra 2011 “Military visitors see facility rehabilitating LTTE cadres,” Sunday Island, 12 June 2011.

Davis, Mark 2012a “Sri Lanka’s new Wave,” SBS Documentary, August 2012,  C:\Users\michael\Documents\Boats–DAYAN ANTHONY\SBS Dateline aug 28 2012(1).mht

Doherty, Ben 2012ba “Return ticket from ‘heaven’ ends dream of better life for Sri Lankan voyagers,” 29 September 2012,

Doherty, Ben 2012b “Deportation no deterrent to Sri Lankans,” 2 December 2012,

Doherty, Ben & Bianca Hall 2012 “Asylum officials ‘ignore” claims,” 6 December 2012,

Ferdinando, Shamindra 2011 “IOM clarifies role in integrating Tigers into society,” 1 Dec. 2011,–integrating -tigers-into society/
Fernando, Manjula
2012 “LTTE cohorts in Australia encourage asylum seekers – Controller General of I&E,” Sunday Observer, 16 December 2012.

Haviland, Charles 2011 “Tamil Tiger releases hit by rehabilitation problems,” BBC News, Colombo 3 Jan. 2011 (

Hodge, Amanda, 2012a “Dramatic mid-sea transfer ends freedom run,” Australian, 30 July 2012,

Hodge, Amanda 2012b “Island of tears and fears,” 15 August 2012,

Hodge, Amanda 2012c “Sri Lankan bishop warns of harassment for repatriated Tamils,” 7 December 2012,

Hugo, Graeme 2009 “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 … ALSO SEE

Jayasekara, Bandula 2012 “Tamil Tigers likely to dominate Tamil asylum-Seekers,” Weekend Australian, 15/16 December 2012 and

Jayasekera, Shanaka 2012 “Sri Lankan boat refugees move to Australia,” Sunday Observer, 29 July 2012, and

Nadesan, Noel 2011 “Australia’s positive role in Sri Lanka,” 2011/10/11/australia%E2%80%99s-positive-role-in-sri-lanka/

Radhakrishnan, R.K. 2011 “Former LTTE combatants rehabilitated,” The Hindu, 4 Feb. 2011 article1155465.ece.

Roberts, Michael 2009a “Tamil Migration within and beyond Sri Lanka,” 5 October 2009,

—-2009b “Taken in by Tamil Tall Tales,”4 Nov 2009,

—-2009c “Adjutant Australia: Controlling Boat People,” 7 Nov 2009,

—-2009d Crude reasoning,” 17 November 2009,

—-2009e Speaking from Ignorance: Australians on Sri Lanka & Its Boat People,”4 December 2009,

—-2009f “Alex’ Kuhendrarajah and the Australian media,” 20 January 2010,

—-2010a Boat People as Blanket Categories,” 19 April 2010,

—-2010b “Aussies swallow Lies and Rajapaksas miss a Trick,” 31 Oct. 2010,

—-2010c From “Leaky Wooden Boats” to the Imbecile Asian,” 27 December 2010 =

—-2010d “Missing the Boat: Australians at Sea on Asylum-Seekers,” 19 October 2011,

—-2010e “Mahesh Pushpakumara: the saga of the marooned fisherman,” 20 November 2010,

— 2012a “Boat People to Australia: A Comment on The Social Architects’ Survey and Twist on the Tale,” 24 July 2012,

—- 2012b “Australian Gullibility: forgeries, lies and manipulation in the netherworld of in-migration,” 26 July 2012,

—- 2012c “Amanda Hodge adds twist to Dayan Anthony’s tale,” 28 July 2012,

— 2012d “Deported from Britain: back to ‘duress’ or ordinariness in Sri Lanka?” 11 August 2011,

— 2012e Channel Seven’s Documentary on Asylum-Seekers from Lanka exposes New Angles but blunders with Kamahl,” 25 August 2012,

— 2012f “A “Fun Game.” Illuminating Tales of Tamil Asylum-Seekers from Sri Lanka, Today… late 2012,” 11 December 2012,

Sackur, Stephen 2010aA Sri Lankan re-education for Tamil child soldiers,”

Wamanan, Arthur 2011 “Rehabilitation: Beginning a new life,” Nation, 24 April 2011.

Yatawara, Dhanashi 2012 “Illegal immigrants exposed to grave danger –IOM,” Sunday Observer, 16 December 2012.

[1] See especially Shanaka Jayasekera 2012 and Roberts 2009a, b, e and f. Also take note of the recent comments by the Controller of Immigration in SL about the impact of European and Canadian policies as well as the implementation of better passport checking systems in many countries (Fernando 2012).

[2] For instances, see ABC 2010 and Hodge2009 “Tamil refugees fleeing Sri Lankan police state,” The Australian, 21 October 2009,

[3] There were many factors behind this outmigration. The July 1983 pogrom directed at Tamils in the south, state reprisals against Tamil people in the north and east in response to acts of guerrilla warfare made up one cluster of reasons. However, internecine killings and warring between the different Tamil militant groups and a desire to get away from the LTTE conscription in the period 1990-2008 were among the other pressures promoting the refugee flows to neighbouring Indian shores. See Roberts, 2009a, b, and 2010 b, d.

[4] Quotation from Sathiyamoorthy of the Observer Research Foundation in Chennai – see Roberts, “Tamil migration within and beyond Sri Lanka,” 5 December 2009,

[6] One outstanding example is Pamela Curr, who held to this opinion about seven Sinhala fishermen from the Negombo area who ditched their boat and came ashore at Shark Bay in WA in late 2008. All were eventually deported after several months of investigation (presumably at some cost to Australia n coffers).

[7] See Davis 2012; Hodge 2012a, b and 2012e Channel Seven’s Documentary on Asylum-Seekers from Lanka exposes New Angles but blunders with Kamahl,” 25 August 2012,

[8] Figures provided by a source from the Ministry of Defence. The total of 3020 does not include 85 deemed crew (of whom 72 were Sinhala and 13 Muslim).

[9] Hodge 2012c.

[10] Doherty 2012b and Doherty & Hall 2012.

[11] See Doherty 2012b and Doherty & Hall 2012 as well as Hodge 2012c. ‘People want to go to Australia because there is nothing for them here, no life,” fisherman Pradeep Lusena told Fairfax Media in coastal Negombo. “Even if they are caught and sent home, they will try again.” (in Doherty 2012b). Doherty does not seem to have deciphered the fact that most boat people are released on bail and that it is the crew who are kept longer 9and one presumes that this distinction operates with deportees as well). In short, the “people smugglers” are separated from the rest.

[12] Email note dated 12 December 2012. Also see photo and account in Hodge“Dramatic mid-sea transfer ends freedom run,” Australian, 30 July 2012,

[13] See Roberts 2012 f.

[14] Note Hugo 2009.

[15] These contentions have been spelt out in Roberts 2009c and 2010a.

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