Academic tells why Tamils flee Sri Lanka

Tamil Sri Lankan refugees arriving in India, 2006.

More than 100 people attended an October 17 talk by Professor Damien Kingsbury of Deakin University titled “Why are the Tamils fleeing Sri Lanka?”. The meeting was organised by the Brigidine Asylum Seekers Project.

Kingsbury outlined the history of Sri Lanka. He said that British colonialism created a centralised administration of the previously separate Tamil and Sinhalese areas of the island. After independence in 1948, Sinhalese politicians established a “majoritarian” political system that discriminated against the Tamil minority in terms of language, employment and education.

Tamil protests against discrimination were met with violence. In addition to the “official” violence of the army and police, there were anti-Tamil riots, the worst of which killed about 3000 people in 1983.

Repression of peaceful protest led to the rise of militant Tamil groups, among which the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) came to dominate. Kingsbury said that during the war both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE used terrorist tactics and attacked civilians.

The government won the war in May 2009. An estimated 40,000 people, mainly civilians, died in just the final few weeks of the war as the government bombarded the LTTE's last stronghold.

Since then, Kingsbury said the victors “behave in ways that continue the atrocities of the war they have won”. Tamils face detention without charge, arbitrary execution, torture and forced displacement. Tens of thousands of Tamils cannot return to their homes and farms in areas occupied by military bases.

Disappearances have become “routinised”, with people being abducted every few days. Not only Tamils but also some dissident Sinhalese, including journalists, have disappeared.

These are the conditions that cause people to flee Sri Lanka. “People become refugees for many reasons, but desperation is always the driver,” said Kingsbury. “No one willingly gives up their home and their community and then attempts to undertake a life-threatening journey for any reason other than they believe their future is under threat.”