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.