The danger of forced migration


Warsan Shire, a Somali British author and poet, once said, “No one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.” This is a fact of life for one type of refugees amongst many, and Sri Lanka is known for producing refugees borne out of political, ethnic, religious, and economic crises. Refugees are those forced to migrate abandoning their places of birth out of fear, suffering, and mental anguish, and climate change. But this category has a reason to flee. However, forced migration as a result of the economic crisis has now begun on a large-scale in Sri Lanka, largely encouraged by government officials. There are large crowds at the passport office, employment agencies and in the background many people boarding boats with little children and elderly to flee to Tamil Nadu as a last resort. This attempt comes after years of people braving the ethnic conflict to embark on such a perilous journey on the high seas.

Vulnerable men and women

 The worst type of forced migration category is that the government authorities of Sri Lanka promote migration among men and women who are vulnerable, says Palitha Athukorale, President of the National Union of Seafarers in Sri Lanka. According to Athukorale, responsible authorities are promoting migration among vulnerable men and women. When those who want to work overseas remained at over the age of 25 or 28, the Government recently reduced the age limit for female domestic workers to 21. He also stated that the Family Background Report (FBR) is no longer required. Previously, the Grama Niladhari would check on the FBR and note whether they had children under the age of five, and most such mothers are not permitted to work in foreign countries. The FBR is no longer required.

According to Authukorale, forced migration of the category of wartime was based on a reason, but what is happening now is that for economic reasons, young families are split and social standards have dropped forcing people to leave for jobs overseas when the Cabinet of Ministers and leaders’ job is to find the money, feed the people, and provide them with sufficient employment, which is not happening, he noted.

Artificial migration plans

According to Athukorale’s definition of forced migration, the economic crisis has created artificial migration plans in families that they did not intend to make a few months ago. “Women were hesitant to work abroad, but the current economic situation has taken advantage of the situation, and the authorities are luring people to leave the country.”

Those who leave unwillingly, he claims, are exploited in countries where employment agents steal a large portion of their salary as commission and send a pittance back to the woman’s family. “While this brings in little money for the country, what is happening is that the social fabric is being destroyed on the other side.”

The ongoing forced migration and ‘economic refugee’ has taken new shape. When the pandemic struck Sri Lanka, immigrants either returned or stopped travelling outside the country. Despite a drop in migrant worker revenue, there was a strong desire to leave the country. This was due to a lack of employment opportunities as well as the country’s instability. Sri Lanka faced its most disastrous moment when the 2019 elected government failed and ran out of funds. Thousands of Sri Lankans have decided to leave the country because the economic situation is dire. The biggest example is to see people clamouring at the Department of Immigration and Emigration to get their passports either anew or to renew them. Families have been forced to split due to political insecurity on the one side and severe food insecurity on the other.

Thushan S. (26) has closed his grocery store for good after making a profit of Rs 80,000 last year. He could not even make a mere Rs 5,000 profit so he was pushed to shut down the shop. With nothing else to do, he joined the Galle Face protesters to express his rage and frustration. He was then seen outside the Foreign Ministry with his educational documents to be attested.

As he was limping, the writer asked what had happened to his leg, to which he replied that he had been beaten with batons by police. He stated that he does not want to risk his life and has decided to pay his entire savings to migrate to France and work as a room boy in a hotel.

“I cannot file a complaint with the police because I will be noted and no justice will be served,” Thushan explained. He claims that such protests have had no effect because politicians are adamant about changing the system the people want.

Youth dissatisfied

The youth, the heart of society, are dissatisfied. He believes that this will make them more vulnerable and violent. “My parents never forced me to leave, but they are now concerned for my life and future. If I am arrested, I will be unable to travel to any other country. So I must abstain and focus on my future, which will not be in Sri Lanka”. Thushan lamented, “I will serve another country and send money to the Sri Lankan government because that is what they want me to do,” he said.

The indigenous peoples or minorities in a country with no representations also had fled the horrors of modern slavery, ethnic and religious oppression and destructions.

Forced migration can be both illegal and legal and it does not restrict to only the minorities. Some of the wealthiest people of Sri Lanka who can afford to handle the present scenario are also seeking political and economic asylum or job possibilities overseas due to the ongoing political and economic turmoil.

Forced migration led to Tamils of Indian descent into the country

They sell their assets and spend on the procedures, while those who cannot afford such procedures take a boat across the Palk Strait or remain in the country where they are visiting. However, these two types are forced on people directly or subtly as they have no choice in the matter. When they arrive at their unexpected destination by land, sea, or air, they are greeted by another moniker – refugees.

For Sri Lankans, forced migration or being a refugee is nothing new.  This type of forced migration occurred during the Colonial era, when the British lied to South Indian Tamils about the opportunities in Sri Lanka to remove them from their land of living. Messages were sent across the Palk Strait by those luring ‘agents’ to some Tamils who lived in Sri Lanka about Sri Lanka labour supply zone. There is a story that is popular amongst those of Indian origin that South Indians were deceived into coming to Sri Lanka to work in the plantations citing that ‘maldive fish’ thrive beneath the tea-bushes. It is said that they believed it as Sri Lanka is close to the Maldive Islands, and Tamils in South India knew about fish and dry fish in the Maldives, and so they thought similarly, Sri Lanka would be rich in ‘maldive fish’ and dry fish. 

 South Indian immigrants who work on the estates are still meted out second-class treatment. Some of the line rooms that the British constructed over 100 years ago for their horses are still occupied by Indian origin estate workers living in Sri Lanka. These Tamils of Indian descent divorced their original spouses, remarried in Sri Lanka since they were unable to get back. For several decades they were left stateless too. Many people who had called Sri Lanka home were compelled to relocate to South India during Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s tenure. When we visited the plantations, these people shared their own accounts of forced labour and forced migration even today. Also, there are South Indian movies based on their lives. The most recent film, Ingirunthu, directed by Sivamohan Sumathy, has received a lot of attention. There are about 1.5 million Tamils of Indian descent living in Sri Lanka, primarily in the upcountry, according to Tamil leaders.

Sri Lanka: A Country Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1988 by  Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada  state  that Indian Tamils, poorer and less educated than their Sri Lankan Tamil cousins, since independence have endured an equally precarious situation. Although agreements with India largely resolved the issue of their nationality, 100,000 Indian Tamils remained stateless in the late 1980s.

Those holding Sri Lankan citizenship and remaining loyal to senior Thondaman’s pro-government Ceylon Workers’ Congress were largely indifferent to Sri Lankan Tamils’ militant demands for an independent state, but endemic poverty among plantation workers and occasional harsh treatment at the hands of the Police and Sinhalese civilians made the people more receptive to leftist ideology and threatened the traditional tranquility of the inland hill country.

War caused force migration

Forced Migration Issues in South Asia: A General Survey in Europa World Yearbook 2012 by Taylor and Francis as quoted  by David Rampton explains  that many of the nationalist, secessionist and ethnic conflicts and tensions that have impacted upon forced migration patterns in South Asia, including the long-run insurgency of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) against the Government of Sri Lanka and a host of smaller insurgent-led struggles in the north-east of India and in Pakistan, have been nurtured by similar nationalist and identity-related movements and struggles launched in search of separate states or regional autonomy. In addition to this, one can include in this paradigm of state formation and exclusion, the situation of minority groups that have been discriminated against, expelled and/or denied citizenship, despite the fact that the depressed and marginalised status of such groups has thus far precluded their capacity for mounting counter-state or separatist struggles. This has been the experience of Bihari Muslims and Rohingyas in Bangladesh, as well as of the Bhutanese Lhotshampa refugees in Nepal, all groups rendered stateless by their State of origin through the marginalisation of exile.

The 30-year ethnic conflict was the driving force behind the largest form of forced migration. The Tamils of the North and East were mostly those who fought their way back to their stateless status in those western countries. Even today, many families seek citizenship in countries such as Papua New Guinea, Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, and France. Many of these families, who took the risk of crossing the sea and living in camps in Australia, were deported after losing their migrant status due to harsh treatment by their government.

Preferential Uni admission system

In the early 1970s, the government implemented a preferential admission system known as the Standardisation Policy for university entrants which reduced the number of medical and engineering students from the North and East entering Sri Lankan universities. Before Prabakaran was recognised as the leader of the armed struggle, it was Ponnuthurai Sivakumaran who swallowed cyanide after being caught revolting against the Centre. During the rebel war, Prabakaran followed in his footsteps and introduced cyanide for his militants. However, the war between the rebels and government troops has a significant impact on the Tamils even now.

Many fled by boat to nearby Tamil Nadu, and there was a massive exodus from Sri Lanka, with many boarding flights to western countries.

The major exodus occurred during the 1983 riots, when diplomatic missions opened their doors to terrified Sri Lankan Tamils. Sri Lankan Tamils have spread all over the world. There are families even in Myanmar, Malaysia and Indonesia and have now lost their roots. They are still protesting against the war that has destroyed their lives!

TT a former member of the Jaffna student movement speaks:

TT  (pseudonym) is in his seventies. In the late 1960s, he was a member of the Jaffna student movement. He is now a well-known international lawyer in the United States. He has come a long way since being arrested seven times for protesting the standardization policy. At the time, there was no Prabakaran. TT recalls Prabakaran as a junior in another school. According to TT, there was no Prevention of Terrorism Act at the time. He and many others were arrested under the emergency law. Sivakumaran, he recalls, swallowed cyanide while ‘TT’ was in jail. ‘TT’ spent seven years in jail in total, arrested during different protests.

“There was no political motivation at the time.” It was purely due to frustration with the education system, which the Sri Lankan government did not believe would have an impact on the minds of Tamil youths. TT believes that if that was addressed at the time, there would be no uprising against the South. Sri Lanka lost ‘TT’s’ skills as one of the best international lawyers this country has produced.  TT claims to have completed his Advanced Level at the Welikada prison. “The plight of youth in Sri Lanka brought back memories of my own,” TT, who wished to remain anonymous, said.

TT is compelled by his wellwishers to write about the Student Movement and how it affected his life, but he refuses. TT says, “I don’t want to rekindle anything right now.” However, there is a strong message here.

People who fled now hold the highest positions in the world. Tamils, for that matter who are called the Tamil Diaspora, have given a hard time to Sri Lankan politicians. Tamils are after corrupt politicians, and it is reported that it is the Tamil lawyers who are chasing the former President out of Singapore.

 The internet can connect all Sri Lankans, allowing them to participate in protests from afar whenever possible. The danger is whether or not politicians have taken forced migration seriously. ‘No’ is the answer. – [email protected]

By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan