Civil war 1983-2009

The civil conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ended in May 2009, having lasted more than 26 years and resulting in the deaths of 80,000–100,000 people. The United Nations (UN) reports that both sides committed violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law during the conflict. As a result of these hostilities, both during and following the civil conflict, Sri Lanka has been a substantial source country for Australia’s refugee resettlement programme.

Sri Lanka has a population of 21 million people. The Sinhalese are the largest ethnic group in the country, followed by Sri Lankan Tamils. After the conflict began in 1983, many Sri Lankans (mostly Tamil) sought refuge in India, Canada, Europe and the United Kingdom.

Reform and aftermath

Presidential elections occurred in 2015, which has seen positive advancements in respect to Sri Lanka’s political transition. The Sri Lankan government has acted to improve accountability and reconciliation, with constitutional reforms currently underway. In October 2015, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHCR) adopted a resolution under which Sri Lanka pledged to undertake many human rights reforms, including resolving the many transitional justice demands arising out of the civil war. 

The UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment reported that while the reform process is fragile, ‘Sri Lanka has been increasingly open to engagement with the international community and civil society in the advancement of human rights.’

Despite this progress, organisations such as Human Rights Watch continue to report on post-war issues, such as the prevalence of police torture and ill treatment, and restriction of liberties for civilians. As a result, Sri Lankan nationals continue to seek asylum, with large numbers arriving in Australia since 2009.

Approximately 470,000 Sri Lankan civilians were internally displaced during various stages of the war, although the majority of these people have returned to their places of origin. Since 2009, the number of people who are internally displaced has steadily declined. At the end of 2015, more than 190,000 Sri Lankan nationals were of concern to the UNHCR, including refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons, returnees and stateless persons.

Australia has been accused of refusing to speak out on the war crimes committed in the final months of Sri Lanka’s civil conflict, and on subsequent human rights abuses, needing the Sri Lankan government’s support in stopping the flow of boats to Australia. 

Sri Lankan asylum seekers to Australia

Between the period 2001-02 and 2011-12, Sri Lanka ranked in the top six countries of origin for Australia’s onshore humanitarian programme. In the years 2007-08 and 2010-11 it also ranked in the top ten countries of origin for Australia’s offshore humanitarian programme.

Most recent asylum statistics from the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) showed that in 2012-13 and 2013-14, Sri Lankan nationals were amongst the highest numbers of ‘illegal maritime arrival’ applicants screened. However, Sri Lanka showed a decline in refugee status determinations over 2013-14 compared to 2012-13, and the recognition rate was very low, with Sri Lanka ranked first on primary refusals.

In more recent years, Sri Lankans seeking asylum have faced Australia’s strict border protection policies. Since late 2013, most asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia by boat have been intercepted at sea, and their boats turned around. We estimate that Australian officials have transferred at least five boatloads of suspected asylum seekers to the custody of Sri Lankan authorities. In April 2017, the Minister for Immigration, Peter Dutton, reported that 30 boats in total have been intercepted since Operation Sovereign Borders commenced.

As at 30 June 2017, 7 per cent of the 1,262 people held in immigration detention facilities were from Sri Lanka: a marked decline from 22 per cent in April 2013. Further, 11 per cent of 553 people living in community detention were from Sri Lanka. While not released in DIBP reporting, a spokesperson for Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said that the largest groups on Nauru and Manus Island were asylum seekers from Iran, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.

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Last updated August 2017.