Friday, October 23, 2009

The issue of Boat People has been completely ignored, is there a reason?

I have returned to Sri Lanka after a lifetime overseas, and it is nearing the 5th year, where I have struggled, with my blog illustrating the good and the bad. The issue of Sri Lankan citizens fleeing the country by any means possible, risking their lives is one that is truly troubling me.

I have noticed that as a matter of policy, the Sri Lankan government has decided to stay completely silent on the subject of the 300 people who are being detained in Indonesia for attempting to go to Australia illegally and the 80 or so people who have taken a boat across the Pacific, attempting to land in Canada.
Let me address each of the points. I suspect it is illegal for a Sri Lankan citizen to leave the country by means other than BIA Katunayaka's immigration controls. They have therefore committed some kind of crime in doing so. Then the Sri Lanka Navy that is supposed to provide surveillance of our maritime assets has failed to spot these boats leaving the country. Presumably in the same vein may not be able to spot unauthorized craft landing illegally either! Is the government embarrassed by this breach or completely non-plussed?
I then read that an official spokesman questioned the validity that they were Sri Lankan as they did not have any documentation on them confirming who they were, as they presumably ditched or had no form of identification, a usual practice, amongst people seeking refugee status. While that is technically correct, the overwhelming evidence is to the contrary, and one cannot hide behind this excuse.
Seeking refugee status while making the statement that they would be imprisoned or discriminated in some way, is the usual modus operandi of a refugee to obtain sympathy, and the hunger strikes and threats on their persons seems to be a way of garnering sympathy and supporting their case.
Once the identity of these people have been obtained and I presume submitted to the Sri Lankan authorities by the country harboring them, checks made to determine if any had LTTE connections has brought to light one or two who are wanted. This further corroborates why they left, but not others who have no such threat. However some of them can be escapees from the Detention camps in the North aka Welfare Villages. Paying US$45,000 to escape is a huge king’s ransom to leave the country. I cannot believe the main smuggler took all this money without sharing it with some enabler in high places. Have any of the ruling class received a kick-back from this largesse? I find it hard to believe where there is money to be made some politician is in the thick of it, re-enforcing the reasons for a news blackout.
I believe the Government of Sri Lanka, should show loyalty to its own citizens by making a statement to the effect that, “We are very sorry to hear that people smugglers have assisted our citizens to leave the country with the promise of better prospects, by misrepresenting the conditions prevailing in Sri Lanka. We are prepared to unconditionally take them back if they are able to show some proof that they are Sri Lankan. They will not be subject to prosecution because they broke the law, except for the smugglers. We further appeal to our citizens not to be fooled into such escapes, as there is no other reason other than purely economic for their desire to leave.”
The silent stance taken is an indirect confirmation that they prefer as many citizens who wish to make a gateway to do so. There is no display of concern for their well being, or steps to prevent further departures. While the reason for departure is not race based, it is more likely that a Tamil refugee is granted asylum as compared with a Sinhala one due to the recent actions taken by the Govt. That further encourages the Tamil refugee to seek this rather treacherous route out.
While the media display the people and their actions, there is not one iota of local concern by anyone for their well being especially as they are citizens of Sri Lanka who are undergoing severe hardship where they are currently being held. Of course Tamil rights groups in Australia and Canada are providing legal representation in order to get them released and admitted to the respective countries of their choice.
The lack of sympathy for these people in Sri Lanka will further increase the argument these people have in leaving, as well as find grounds for why they cannot be returned. This policy of no comment has been adopted all along, but the damage it is doing to the reputation of the country and the government is much higher than the government cares to admit, or possibly they don’t even realize it!
Concerted action in collaboration with the countries where these refugees are fleeing to, is required. Note they are not fleeing persecution and going to India, so the smell of ‘economic refugee’ tag is obvious. This collaboration will educate people wishing to flee about the stupidity of so doing, and that the money that they are spending can actually be more useful in Sri Lanka to give them a better life.
The UN organization on Migration, IOM also has a part to play in this regard and can play an intermediary role in preventing this exodus, while conducting some form or program in explaining the legal ways of successful emigration.
In conclusion, it is safe to say that people will try whatever means at their disposal to achieve their goals. Whether they achieve this or not is open to debate, but a consistent policy stance by the host country and that of origin is required to cover areas such as immunity from prosecution on return and basic rights of the individual both to deter them from leaving and making conditions favorable at home, so this will not happen in the future and tar the reputation of Sri Lanka.


Anonymous said...

Ranjit, thanks for this commentary. I especially like your stories of the rural agriculture sector. I hope we can have more of those in the future.

Harsha said...

Hi Ranjith,

I have absolutely no sympathy for illegal immigrants or economic refugees.

A state should have the right to select whom it admits to it's society without emotional blackmail.
It's like a squatter barging his way in to my house and refusing to leave because my house is more comfortable.

I think there might be a less self serving reason for GOSL to comment on the refugees. If the nationality of these people are yet to be confirmed any statement would be preemptive and seen as an admission of knowledge that they left Sri Lanka.
Also if these people are not from Sri Lanka it would be some serious pie in the face.

Anonymous said...

Is it not a matter of choice ? Majority who hop a boat are in dire circumstances. Some of them are the tail end of the LTTE and the rest leave due to economic situations that they "perceive " as insolvable without foregin currency. I personally know of many who boated to Italy and are doing very well now.
I think it is up to the individual and I for one agree with SL govt's silence. If they want to risk their lives escaping a country they perceive as so bad why must the govt even make an effort on their behalf ? Any man , woman or family who hop on a boat and risk their lives think that it is the last option and the country that they are going to should receive them with open arms and not treat them as if they were criminals. After all there were many who sailed and lived in countries without any visa, in the past.

Anonymous said...

I notice in Oct 24 daily mirror that govt. warns of stern action against human smuggling! saying the recent news has tarnished the reputation of SL and this has inevitably embarrassed the forces who are supposed to protect the borders from law breakers.
I hope they are true to their promise as unfortunately many have indirect or direct links to govt figures who profit from it.

Anonymous said...

Hey Ranjit - Thanks for your insight into the recent spate of alleged Tamil refugees ex SL and now part of a major dilemma for Australia & Indonesia.

As an Australian who was appalled by our previous (Howard) government's treatment of refugees and asylum seekers and who had the chance to work with some of them when they ultimately reached Australia, I am very saddened to see we are back in similar circumstances again.

Our new (Rudd) government is not exactly excelling in their handling of this issue. There is political mileage to be gained and as ever politicians always work within the paradigm of the next election and how their current behaviour and actions will influence the outcome of same.

The numbers of 'boat people' involved are apparently a drop in the bucket compared with the numbers of refugees and asylum seekers who arrive, unheralded, by air - who remain completely unremarked upon by our government. This raises the obvious cynical reservation that this whole situation is politically motivated.

The question now being asked here is why isn't the Rudd government taking it up to the SL government and challenging their behaviour in respect of Tamil internal refugees resulting from the now concluded civil war, where such behaviour is the trigger for this surge of 'boat people' leaving SL, risking their lives to gain asylum in countries such as ours.

Where there's smoke, there's fire.

So to me there's enough truth in all of the above to suggest that authorities in each of our countries have to account for themselves. Meanwhile people suffer while the posturing continues.

It is all very sad and as if we don't have enough other issues to confront and resolve.

Cheers Ranjit and great to have your back on air with your really interesting dispatches. Frank

Anonymous said...


We just had a discussion about your blog entries here at 2487 Emerald. You have many regular readers that appreciate your postings.

We especially like the ones about your life as a farmer.

Anonymous said...

Pro choice, that is all I say. If I want to hop and boat and endanger my life and go to Australia and live in a detention camp, I should be able to do it. It is part of my freedom of movement. After all everyone who came to our countries and gave us a hard time came in boats. They even overstayed their visa by 100s of years. So go boatties rock on !!!!! Go !!!!

Anonymous said...


Can you post a story about how the new security situation has affected your agrobusiness?

Will you start to venture further North to get once forbidden produce for Colombo?

Anonymous said...

How come u don't update you lazy bum!

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