Why do asylum seekers continue to leave Sri Lanka? Why does the Australian government uncritically support the Sri Lankan government? Why has the UN Human Rights Council decided to investigate allegations of war crimes in Sri Lanka? And how are these questions linked?

Systematic discrimination against Tamils exists in Sri Lanka, and has done so since soon after the country gained independence from Britain in 1948.

Tamils are a minority (approximately 18 per cent of the population), and are systematically and routinely treated as second-class citizens by the majority Sinhalese community. The two major political parties are Sinhalese, and both major parties have used anti-Tamil rhetoric and practices to gain Sinhalese political support. 

The extreme Sinhalese nationalist view regards Sri Lanka as an island sacred to Buddhism, in which non-Sinhalese have no place. This makes it very difficult for the (predominantly Hindu) Tamil and Muslim minorities to be regarded as equal citizens. Tamils advocated politically to have equal rights for decades following independence, but without success. This led to young Tamils taking up arms in the 1970s, and many believed that they would only achieve equal rights and justice if they could have their own separate state, Tamil Eelam. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) took control of areas in the north and east of the island, and fought for the separate state of Tamil Eelam, which explains the civil war from 1983 to 2009.

Because of the discrimination against Tamils, they have been leaving Sri Lanka since the 1960s. Many left on migrant visas, travelling by plane to Europe, Canada, USA, Australia, and other places. Many others, particularly from the mid-1980s onwards, left by boat as asylum seekers. 

Many thousands of Tamils have fled by boat to India where some live in the community, and some in refugee camps.  In more recent years, some have decided to travel to Australia by boat and seek asylum here.

In Sri Lanka a culture of impunity exists whereby people who criticise the government may be killed. No one is held accountable and no one is punished. This has been a common occurrence for many decades.

A common pattern is that a person who has publicly criticised the government is seen being taken into a white van, with no number plates, and is then never seen again. Relatives and friends can find no information about the person’s whereabouts, or whether they are alive or dead. These disappearances are one example of the outrageous abuse of human rights that are common in Sri Lanka.

The civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE ended in May 2009.  In the last months of the war, thousands of civilians were killed, with reliable estimates ranging upwards of 40,000 people. [1] 

Since that time there continues to be a heavy military presence in the Tamil-majority Northern Province, and ongoing discrimination against Tamils and Muslims.

Dr. Jehan Perera, the (Sinhalese) Executive Director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka recently wrote:

The (Sri Lankan) government has made plans to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the end of the war with a “Victory Day” celebration … in the Southern Province.  But at the opposite side of the country there will be no such celebration.  The government has prohibited any public commemoration of the war’s end in the Northern Province. … The disparity between the government’s treatment of the North and South shows that the ethnic and political conflict remains, despite the end of the war.  The country is geographically and administratively unified but remains politically and ethnically divided and in a state of conflict.[2]

The Sri Lankan government has done very little to encourage or promote reconciliation, and has not implemented many of the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (appointed by this same Sri Lankan Government).  Human rights abuses continue. This is why many organisations and countries welcomed the resolution on Sri Lanka passed at the UN Human Rights Council in March 2014, to open an investigation into alleged war crimes committed by both sides during the conflict.

Australia did not vote in favour of this resolution, which was a change in approach. In the two previous UN Human Rights council resolutions Australia supported moves to encourage Sri Lanka to investigate allegations of war crimes. The change in the Australian position is because the Australian government wants to bribe the Sri Lankan government to stop allowing asylum seekers from leaving by boat. The Australian government’s simplistic obsession with stopping the boats means it is prepared to overlook the history of persecution of Tamils, and the serious allegations of war crimes, torture, and continuing widespread human rights abuses.[3] This is morally repugnant.


David Feith is a teacher at Monash College in Melbourne and chairperson of Australia-Tamil Solidarity, an organization made up of Tamil and non-Tamil Australians working together to achieve peace through justice for Tamil people in Sri Lanka.

Email: David.Feith@mufy.edu.au

[1] International Crisis Group (2010) ‘War Crimes in Sri Lanka’, Asia Report No. 191; Report of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka', 31 March 2011, p iii; Human Rights Law Centre (2014) ‘Can’t flee, can’t stay: Australia’s interception and return of Sri Lankan asylum seekers’; Weiss, G. (2011).  The Cage: the fight for Sri Lanka and the last days of the Tamil Tigers Pan Macmillan Australia 

[2] Perera, J (2014) ‘Regaining National Unity Five Years On’

[3] For more details see: Howie, E. (2014)  ‘Can’t Flee, can’t stay: Australias’ interception and return of Sri Lankan Asylum seekers’, Human Rights Law Centre, Melbourne