Sri Lanka — In the past two years, the plight of Syrian refugees has dominated the media; unfortunately, they are not the only ones. A similar crisis is escalating in Asia, as Tamils from Sri Lanka are attempting the dangerous journey to Australia in search of a more dignified life.
These 10 Facts about Sri Lankan refugees offer a glimpse into a similar crisis at the other side of the globe:
- The Sri Lankan Civil War fought between the Sri Lankan government and the separatist militia Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam ended in 2009, after 26 years of violence. It resulted in over 145,000 refugees and 300,000 internally displaced people.
- At the end of the war, the internally displaced people, largely of Tamil origin, were moved from the dangerous northern part of the country to camps in the South. These camps were supposed to be an emergency measure to provide safety to those uprooted by the war, but effectively became mass detention camps from which the displaced could not move.
- As of April 30, 2015, 44,934 people were yet to be resettled from the detention camps. The authorities of Sri Lanka had promised to build over 65,000 houses for displaced families in the in the Northern and Eastern provinces of the country. On October 8, 2016, the Ministry of Defense reported that 100 houses were under construction, far below the target. The Indian government is funding a program to build a further 46,000.
- The government of Sri Lanka remains suspicious of Tamils, sometimes abducting them from their own homes and detaining them for questioning. In 2012, Human Rights Watch had already documented 75 cases of torture since the end of the war — including rape — by the Sri Lankan security forces. It is also suspected to be responsible for disappearances that occur in heavily patrolled areas. This past May, the government admitted to receiving over 65,000 reports of missing persons.
- Most of the refugees fled to India, especially in the area of Tamil Nadu. The government of the South Indian state runs 109 camps, housing around 60,000 refugees. The Indian government refuses to give them citizenship or asylum, even those who have been born in the camps. They are legally disallowed from leaving the camps without permission, owning property or having access to mobile phones. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) does not have access to the camps.
- Due to the alleged abuses by the government of Sri Lanka, many refugees are wary of returning home. A secretary of the Eelam National Democratic Front, G. Gnanraja, said “It is peaceful but still the Sri Lankan Tamils do not have any rights there. The Sri Lankan government still arrest Tamils and few have even died in the last few months.” To leave the country legally, they would have to pay a fine of Rs. 3600 (approximately $50) per person per year from the very first year they have been staying in the country, and a visa fee of Rs 13,500 (approximately $200); smugglers accept Rs. 100,000 (approximately $1,500) from refugees for one-way journeys.
- Looking for a dignified life outside India and facing prosecution at home, Sri Lankan Tamils are attempting to make the dangerous sea journey to Australia. An estimated 30,000 people from Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Vietnam tried to cross the Indian Ocean in 2015, according to the UNHCR. They estimate that deaths from starvation, dehydration and smugglers’ abuse while on board are in the hundreds.
- The Australian government implemented Operation Sovereign Borders in 2013. Under this policy, refugee boats attempting to land on Australian shores are towed back to Indonesian waters and let go. In July 2015, 633 people were turned back, an increase of 593 in comparison to July 2014.
- Under the Sri Lankan law, it is a crime to attempt to leave the country except through official ports. Considering the human rights abuses that take place during detention, the fate of refugees returned to Sri Lanka is dim. In 2012, the fate of 153 asylum seekers returned home by Australian authorities was shrouded in military secrecy.
- This past June, a truck carrying 33 Sri Lankan refugees was intercepted by Indian authorities at Chennai, India. The truck was to board a boat on its way to Australia. Local police claimed there have been at least four similar attempts in the last three years. The refugees demand that if they are still refused citizenship or asylum status they should at least be allowed the freedom of movement. There have been several suicides and protests in the Tamil Nadu camps this year.
The hard facts of the Sri Lankan refugees are appalling and it reminds us that in this global world crisis, spillovers into other countries are common. From Sri Lanka to India, to Indonesia, to Australia this is an issue that needs to be addressed.
– Eliza Gkritsi