Sri Lankan Tamil Refugees: Travails of Asylum Seeking

Lured by the fairy tales of an El Dorado in Australia, Sri Lankan Tamil refugees are falling prey to unscrupulous human traffickers. Last week, for instance, a tragic event took place in the Bay of Bengal. After paying huge amounts to touts, 120 refugees took a boat from Nagapattinam to Australia. However, they were abandoned mid-sea when the engine stopped working. After an agonisng wait, the Indian Coast Guard rescued them and brought them to the safety of the Tamil Nadu coast.
This is not the first time that Tamil refugees are faced with disaster. Middle-men often paint a rosy picture of Australia, where asylum is easy, job opportunities are good for qualified people and within two years one can get Australian citizenship. The refugees, who are eager to settle down in a developed country, are carried away by these cock and bull stories. They exhaust all their savings or sell their gold ornaments to pay the agents. The risk of sea journey is worth taking, for once you reach the X’mas Island, a new chapter in your life can begin.

In order to escape the attention of security agencies in Tamil Nadu, the agents ask the refugees to assemble in various places, Quilon in Kerala, Vizag in Andhra Pradesh or Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu. The gullible refugees are taken in small boats to mid-sea where a big ship, with drinking water and food, will be waiting for them. If the refugees are lucky, they reach their destination, but more often than not, they perish mid-sea. On a few occasions, the Indian Coast Guard has played the role of knight in shining armour and has rescued the stranded refugees.

When the Sri Lankan Tamils were coming to India as refugees on a large scale, they had to trek long distances, pay huge amounts to boat operators in order to reach Rameshwaram. The suffering of the refugees became evident when a boat carrying them capsized in the Palk Strait and 165 Tamils were drowned in February 1997. The refugees were willing to take all risks because their life was in danger in Sri Lanka and they were sure that they could lead a life of safety in Tamil Nadu. In the course of my field work in Canada, I met Selvi who was born in Jaffna and reached Toronto after surpassing several obstacles. She was the only child of her parents. Her father died in 1988 during IPKF operations. Her mother died one year later. In 1989 Jaffna came under Tiger control. She paid three sovereigns to the Tigers as “exit tax” and reached Colombo. After working for few years as a domestic servant, Selvi decided to migrate to Canada. She contacted a travel agent, who gave her a false passport and a false visa on a hefty payment of 25,000 Canadian dollars. On her first venture, Selvi and five others were detained by the immigration authorities in the Dhaka international airport and were sent back. Six months later, she reached Toronto via Singapore and New York. When I met her in the Siva temple in Toronto, a familiar haunt of the Sri Lankan Tamil Hindus during weekends, she was awaiting a final decision on her application for asylum in Canada.

Why do refugees take risks to go to Australia? The war ended nearly nearly four years ago, the demining operations have been completed, the Sri Lankan Deputy High Commission in Chennai gives the necessary travel documents in 48 hours and the UNHCR provides free air tickets from Chennai to Colombo in addition to maintenance allowance. The sad fact remains, very few refugees have availed of these facilities and gone back to Sri Lanka. The educated among them have few job opportunities in Tamil Nadu and the living conditions in the camps are not satisfactory. So they easily fall prey to touts, who paint a bright future for them if they reach the shores of Australia.

The experience of refugees is traumatic illustration of social change. They are uprooted from one social setting and thrown into another. In that process they undergo enormous sufferings and irreparable tragedies. Torn between fear and hope, the refugee experience creates a void in their lives. Let us remember that all of us can be refugees if man’s inhumanity to man can spread in our country also. As Benjamin Zephaniah, the refugee poet has written:

We can all be refugees
Nobody is safe
All it takes is a mad leader
Or no rain to bring forth food.
We can all be refugees
We can all be told to go
We can be hated by someone
For being someone