During the past six months, much has been written about the unprecedented increase of Sri Lankan emigration to Australia by sea. Media outlets the world over have scrambled to explain how the number of Sri Lankans ‘illegally’ migrating to Australia went from around 200 in 2011, to just under 6,500 in 2012. Far from providing a logical analysis, newspapers instead offered a frustrating mish-mash of government propaganda and refugee advocacy that left many questions unanswered. If, as both the Sri Lankan and Australian governments proposed, the reason for the explosion in Sri Lankan emigration was largely economic, why didn’t these poor Sri Lankans decide to come to Australia before 2012? No one has bothered to answer this crucial question. Considering the recent arrival of a further 66 Sri Lankans on April 18 and the subsequent decision by the Australian government to send 38 of these back to their homeland – bringing the total number of Sri Lankans returned from Australia to over 1000 – an objective analysis is more pressing than ever.
The first mistake made by both sides during this debate is refusing to acknowledge the complexity of what is happening in Lanka. As refugee activists and government ministers stubbornly refuse to acknowledge each other’s arguments, two opposing camps have emerged – those that consider the Sri Lankans arriving in Australia as ‘economic migrants’, and those that consider them ‘political migrants’. However, if either side looked at the evidence they would see that the rise in Lankan migration to Australia is a combination of both these economic and political factors.
The Political Factors
While the Australian and Sri Lankan governments categorically deny that Tamils are subjected to any systematic persecution in their homeland, the fact remains that in 2012 eighty per cent of the Sri Lankan arrivals were Tamil. This creates a problem for the official government position – if, as the government suggest, the reasons behind the increase of Sri Lankan migration were primarily ‘economic’, wouldn’t there be a relatively even spread of ethnicities arriving in Australia? Let’s examine the Tamil question more closely.
There are three key political factors that help us understand why so many Tamils left Sri Lanka in 2012.
Firstly, the continued military presence in the Northern and Eastern provinces has led to thousands of displaced Sri Lankan Tamils unable to return home. According to a December 2012 report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the military occupation in the North and East – comprising 16 of 19 Sri Lankan Army divisions – has resulted in the continued displacement of around 93,000 Tamils. Although the last of the Internally Displaced People (IDP) Camps closed in September 2012 – which at their peak ‘accommodated’ around 300,000 Tamils – the continued military occupation has made it difficult for some IDP’s to return home. Unfortunately for Tamils in the North, the Sri Lankan Army’s occupation is far from a short-term affair – the Army has usurped civil administration (including schools, urban development and land reclamation) and even businesses. In the northern city of Vavuniya, for example, the ratio of soldiers to citizens is equal. The continued military presence in the North has also coincided with the introduction of more Sinhala culture to the north, such as the he erection of 28 Buddha statues on the A9 highway to Jaffna.
Secondly, the Rajapaksa government ruthlessly represses those who speak out against it, particularly those suspected of links to the now defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The two recent attacks on the ‘Uthayan’ newspaper in the northern cities of Kilinochchi and Jaffna, which set fire to the printing machinery and sent two employees to the intensive care unit, is one of many instances of Tamil oppression linked to the Rajapaksa government. From October 2011 to 9 July 2012, there were 77 media reports of abductions and disappearances, 21 of which occurred in northern areas. And these are only the cases the media reported! Out of these cases, five abductees publicly accused the government for abducting them. In response, on 30 August 2012 – the International Day of the Disappeared – around 500 brave families gathered in the northern town of Vavuniya to protest the disappearance of their loved ones. Revealingly, 80% of the Sri Lankan migration to Australia in 2012 occurred during the second half of the year.
The third and final cause of increased Tamil migration is the growing presence of people smuggling syndicates. Despite the fact that in 2012 Australia granted only 512 Sri Lankan emigrants refugee status – or 12% of the total number of migrants – people smugglers still managed to convince many desperate Sri Lankans that for a fee of up to $US 10,000 they would be able to live and work in Australia. Unsurprisingly, the Sri Lankan Navy has been accused by Tamil politicians, non-governmental organisations, returned asylum seekers and even Australian government intelligence of being complicit in the people smuggling trade.
The Economic Factors
It is important to remember that Tamils, just like any other group of people, are divided into class – rich and poor, worker and bourgeois. It is therefore a mistake to view them as one single entity acting with a united interest. Clearly, the reaction of a wealthy Tamil to the situation in Lanka would be far different to the reaction of a poor Tamil. For example, it is unlikely that a wealthy bourgeois Tamil would speak-out against a government they have thrived under. Furthermore, poor Tamils are much more likely that rich Tamils to become ‘displaced’, as they lack the money necessary to buy new property. While refugee activists consider the migration problem as a direct result of the political persecution of Tamils in Lanka, this outlook ignores the harsh economic reality that got certain Tamils into vulnerable positions in the first place.
American author Charles Bukowski once wrote, “No one suffers like the poor suffer”. This is definitely true in Lanka. Since the end of the civil war in 2009, the lives of poor Tamils in Lanka have been hard. An August 2012 report found that in the northern Vanni area, most Tamils were still living in tents provided to them by United Nations after the civil war ended. Additionally, as many poor Tamils in the North do not have secure employment, they are forced to get into debt or go days without food. Faced with the unrelenting oppression of the Sri Lankan capitalist system – in addition to the military rule of the Rajapaksa regime – it becomes clear why 5,215 Tamils and around 1,000 Sinhalese jumped at the opportunity to go to Australia in 2012.
The increased migration to Australia in 2012 reflects a growing trend across all of Sri Lanka. Between 2006 and 2011, there was a 25% increase of Sri Lankans legally emigrating to find foreign employment. In the North the rates are even higher – for example in Jaffna, during 2011 just over 5% of the population left to work overseas, double that of Colombo. Even the notoriously understated Sri Lankan unemployment statistics rose from 4.2% in 2011 to 5.2% in 2012. This rising unemployment, in conjunction with the rising levels of Sri Lankans leaving the country for work – 262,960 in 2011 – shows that Sri Lankan capitalism is failing. And as always, it is the working masses who feel the sting of capitalism the most, Sinhala, Muslim and Tamil alike. When confronted with this harsh economic reality, in combination with the military occupation and the ‘disappearing’ squads that operate throughout the country, it is unsurprising that Tamils – and to a lesser extent, the Sinhalese – are willing to brave three weeks on the open sea for a chance at a normal life. Under the banner of the Movement for Equal Rights, we at the Front Line Socialist Party are committed to the struggle against the military rule, and seek to unite all oppressed Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim people against the destructive capitalist forces freely operating in Lanka today.