TAMIL REFUGEES & ASYLUM SEEKERS
|"Exile is not primarily a geographical location, it is a state of mind through
which one becomes what one has left behind. In the Tamil case many actually become what
they have fled from. Between the extremes of the warrior and the victim the refugee must
carry out his 'bricolage', assemble the pieces and carry on. For many this life project
takes the form of internalised martyrdom, the fight for Eelam being replaced by a longing
for Eelam which grows into a constant part of the personality and becomes a
counterweight, the counterweight, to the vicissitudes of exile..." Oivind
Fuglerud in Life on the Outside : The Tamil Diaspora and
"Exile, it is
often said, is the nursery of nationalism. If so, then the yearning for
a homeland has a long history.." Anthony D.Smith in*Chosen Peoples: Sacred Sources of National Identity,
Genocide'83 led thousands of Tamils from the
island of Sri Lanka to seek political asylum in Tamil Nadu, Europe, North America and
Australasia. During the succeeding years, as the conflict in the island increased in
intensity, this outflow continued. Article 1A(2) of the International Convention relating to the Status of Refugees defines
a refugee as a person who
".......as a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951 and
owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality,
membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of
his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the
protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country
of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such
fear, is unwilling to return to it."
Except for seven states (Brazil, Italy, Madagascar, Malta, Monaco,
Paraguay and Turkey), all other parties to the Convention apply the refugee definition without
geographical or time limitation.
Additionally, the Convention relating to
the status of Stateless Persons, the 1967 Protocol
relating to the Status of Refugees , the Declaration on
Territorial Asylum , and the Declaration on the Human
Rights of Individuals Who are not Nationals of the Country in which They Live provide
the international legal frame work relating to refugees and asylum seekers.
During 1984 and 1985, Amnesty International opposed the refoulement of
Tamils. On 9 January 1985 Amnesty announced that
it believes that, if returned against their will, all members of the Tamil minority have reasonable grounds to fear:
1. that they may fall victim to arbitrary killings by members of the
2. that they may be subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention
But, more often not, the efforts of Charter '87 and Amnesty International
notwithstanding, the implementation of the law relating to refugees and asylum seekers has
been largely influenced by policy considerations and real politick (both in the West and
David Matas wrote in Canada in
"Refugee claimants are among the most wretched people in Canada.
They have fled countries where they have been imprisoned for their beliefs, they may have
been tortured, their lives may have been threatened. They know no one or almost no one in
Canada. They normally cannot speak either French or English. A refugee claim can take
years to process before a final determination is reached. Until a person is recognised as
a refugee, he is not recognised as a resident, even though he may be here for years.
Despite his lengthy stay, he is treated as if he will be leaving in a week or two."
Nirmala Chandrahasan in her well
researched 'Study of the Reception of Tamil Asylum Seekers into Europe, North America and
India' during the four year period 1983 to 1987 (published in the Harvard Human
Rights Yearbook, Spring 1989), commented:
"During this period the greatest number of Tamils - approximately
130,000 - sought asylum in India, separated from the northern start of Sri Lanka by a
narrow stretch of sea, the Palk Straits. Approximately 70,000 Tamil asylum seekers went to
Europe and North America."
"The treatment of Tamil asylum claims in different jurisdictions
highlights two important points about recent developments in the handling of refugees.
First, the reception of Tamils in North America, Europe and India indicates the extent to
which national policy perspectives have shaped the respective refugee determination
processes. .. A second development observed in the practice of Tamil-receiving states is
the categorisation of the refugees allowed to stay into subgroups, such as "B
status" (in the Netherlands) or "exceptional leave to remain" (in the
United Kingdom) or with no designated legal status at all (in India). ..The question
remains to what extent the fate of large groups of persons such as the Tamils can be left
to the discretion of governments, rather than firmly based within a framework of binding
Since 1987, the numbers of Tamil asylum seekers have continued to
increase together with a growing determination of Western governments to stem the flow.
"Tamil refugees have a special place in British immigration law
and practice over the last few years. Their arrival has provoked restrictive new laws and
practices which have tightened British immigration control and made it harsher and less
humane for other non-European settlers and refugees as well as Tamils." (Closed Doors: New Restrictions on the Rights of Asylum
Seekers - Anne Owers - 1988)
Tamil Asylum Seekers
Protesting at London
Heathrow, February 1987
Even after the Indo Sri Lanka Accord of 1987, Amnesty International continued to emphasise that
there was considerable uncertainty about the safety of Tamils in Sri Lanka.
In 1990, the Minority
Rights Group in London, profiled the case of Seenithamby Javanarajah, an asylum
seeker, who was deported to Sri Lanka by the British authorities and was tortured on his
return to the island.
"During his forced return to Sri Lanka Javanarajah travelled to
Jaffna where the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) was responsible for security. A month
after his arrival he was detained by the IPKF and made to appear before three hooded
informants' one of whom nodded his head when Javanarajah appeared. He was then taken to an
IPKF camp, where he was detained, interrogated, kicked and beaten with pipes. He was
severely beaten three more times over the next seven days and it was only aver 10 weeks of
detention that this family managed to secure his release by bribery."
The presence of Tamil asylum seekers in Germany and Switzerland, brought
with it overt racist attacks. In 1991, one Tamil woman asylum seeker was killed in
Germany. Widespread protest meetings were
held by Tamil associations.
In early 1994 ( in a well documented appeal ), the Swiss Federation of Tamil Associations called upon the
Swiss authorities to reconsider their decision to forcibly repatriate Tamil asylum
seekers to Sri Lanka and pointed out:
"On 6 October 1993, an European Parliamentary delegation which
visited Sri Lanka told the Colombo Press that the current situation in Sri
Lanka was not conducive for Western governments to return asylum seekers.
These views give the lie direct to the claims sometimes made on behalf of the Sri Lanka
government that the widespread human rights abuses of the last few years have
sharply declined and that the Sri Lanka Government have taken measures to protect the
human rights of all its citizens as a result of pressure from bodies such as Amnesty
International and donor governments."
The Appeal added:
"May we respectfully say that instead of sending back Tamil
asylum seekers to face detention, torture and death in Sri Lanka, the Swiss authorities
and others with a liberal conscience should use their not inconsiderable influence and
power, to persuade the Sri Lanka government to address the underlying causes of the
conflict and recognise the right of the Tamil people to live in their own home land, free
from the oppressive rule of a Sinhala dominated Sri Lanka government. "
Again, perhaps not surprisingly, the United States has adopted a
particularly restrictive approach to Tamil refugee applicants. ( United States Court Rejects Tamil Asylum Claim - 1995 ). However, the case of Balaranjini Ratnam was an exception to the general
The plight faced by some Tamil asylum seekers was brought to public
attention by a 36 year old Tamil asylum seeker in Sweden setting himself on fire on 2
March 1994. The action of the Tamil asylum seeker in Sweden in preferring death, even by
fire, to a forced deportation to Sri Lanka shows in stark terms the oppressive ground
reality in Colombo and elsewhere in the island of Sri Lanka. ( Tamil Asylum Seeker sets himself on fire in
Sweden - March 1994)
On 10 August 1996, the BBC reported an interview with Sri Lanka Foreign
Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar:
"There is no discrimination against Tamils
in the country nor is there any danger to their lives, Foreign Minister Lakshman
Kadirgamar told foreign media personnel recently... (In response to a) question as to the
exact truth of the claims made by the Tamil youths overseas who complain that they were
discriminated against due to fact that they were Tamils and their lives were in danger,
Minister Kadirgamar in his reply said that they make these complaints so that they could
seek political asylum in foreign lands. They are, in actual fact, economic
Whilst the British Refugee Council publication Sri Lanka Monitor has taken pains to
report fairly on the Tamil refugee situation, the United Nations High
Commissioner for Refugees has played an
increasingly controversial role in relation to Tamil asylum seekers and has been
criticised for being influenced more by real politick than by humanitarian considerations.
The British Refugee Council Sri Lanka Monitor reported in September 1997:
"UNHCR declares in a March Information Note that orderly and safe return of
rejected asylum-seekers to their country of origin could safeguard the principle of asylum
for those who genuinely need protection. UNHCR further says that rejected asylum-seekers
are not singled out at Colombo airport or later and people are treated fairly and humanely
during Army security checks.
Human rights agencies say that Colombo conditions for Tamils have hardly
changed since the British Refugee Council mission in December last year and its report in
February. The situation remains precarious for Tamils with the continuing LTTE threat to
the capital. President Chandrika Kumaratunge herself said in August that she was aware of
innocent Tamils being detained by security forces for ransom. London-based human rights
agency Amnesty International, during its August visit, uncovered evidence of widespread
torture, including in Colombo.
Observers say UNHCRs position is prompted by considerations other than the real
situation in Colombo. They point to a recently leaked December 1993 internal UNHCR memo
from the agencys Sri Lankan Resident Representative to its Geneva headquarters
acknowledging that the security situation for Tamils in Colombo had been deteriorating as
evidenced by increased arrests.
The memo advises against freezing UNHCR guidelines, which permit Western governments to
repatriate Sri Lankan asylum-seekers, on the grounds that frozen guidelines would be
difficult to reinstate. Freezing the guidelines would upset the Sri Lankan authorities and
in order to reinstate the guidelines the burden of proof that the situation had improved
would fall on UNHCR.
The recommendation to continue the guidelines had been taken, according to the memo, on
the request of the then Sri Lankan Presidential Advisor Bradman Weerakoon who had pointed
out that the human rights implications of a UNHCR statement would far outweigh the
consequences of deportations. The memo also says that political implications vis a vis the
Sri Lankan government of any UNHCR statement need to be carefully weighed, particularly
since it would be used in courts in asylum countries."
The UNHCR stand paved the way for further deportations of Tamil asylum
seekers from Europe.
"The governments of Sri Lanka and the Netherlands signed an
agreement on 10 September for the forcible repatriation of rejected asylum-seekers
deepening insecurity among 350,000 Tamil refugees across the world.
Some 350 asylum-seekers will be returned to Sri Lanka in the next twelve months and the
pact is due for review in September next year. Sri Lankan authorities have agreed to issue
identity documents to refugees who do not have any travel papers.
The agreement for the return of Sri Lankan asylum-seekers is the second in Europe.
Under a January 1994 pact between the Swiss and the Sri Lankan governments 696 rejected
refugees have been repatriated in the last 33 months.
In the first eight months of 1997 Netherlands received 14,145 refugees, an increase of
28% compared to 1996, some 1,300 of them from Sri Lanka. A plane carrying 173 Sri Lankan
refugees arrived in Amsterdams Schipol airport in February from the Turkmenistan
capital of Ashkhabad causing a furore and allegations of abuse of the asylum system.
Over 15,000 Sri Lankans have sought refuge in the Netherlands since 1984. The Dutch
Foreign Affairs minister has concluded that the situation in Colombo is safe for Tamils
and quoting international refugee agency UNHCR, claims that those repatriated from other
European nations in 1996 and 1997 have had no problem in the Sri Lankan capital.
Refugees are concerned that other European nations may follow suit. Introduction of
stricter asylum laws and procedures continue and less than 5% of Sri Lankans are granted
UN Convention refugee status in European countries. Several nations, including Denmark and
Norway, are deporting Sri Lankans even without formal agreements.
The Danish police have listed 154 Tamils who are in hiding after Denmark began
deportations late last year. Sweden introduced a new type of air ticket visa in September
for citizens of twelve countries, including Sri Lanka." (British Refugee Council,
Sri Lanka Monitor,
Tamil asylum-seekers in custody for some ten months in detention centres in Australia
staged a hunger strike on 12 October 1997 against prolonged detention.
"Tamil asylum-seekers in custody for some ten months in detention centres in
Australia staged a hunger strike on 12 October against prolonged detention. Their asylum
applications were denied by the Refugee Review Tribunal. They have appealed to the Federal
Court and are likely to remain in detention until their cases are heard. Tamil refugee
organisations say such detention is a violation of human rights and have appealed to
Immigration and Multicultural minister Philip Ruddock. Australian press reports say new
legislation is currently being considered to deny appeals to refused asylum-seekers. In
July the Immigration Department introduced a charge of $1,000 on unsuccessful applications
before leave to appeal was granted. Some 640 applications from Tamils are said to be
pending. In July 17 Tamils were found stranded at Coral Bay, 700 miles north of Perth.
There is increasing concern over the plight of Sri Lankans who are stranded in other
countries. The Tamil Refugee International Network (TRIN) estimates that over 20,000 Sri
Lankans are stranded in over 12 countries in South-East Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe,
including 5,000 in Russia and 5,000 in Thailand. According to reports, around 1,500
foreigners including 234 Sri Lankans are held in a Lithuanian Army camp. A young couple
who returned to Sri Lanka blame their travel agent for the harrowing journey through
Moscow and Minsk in Belorussia. They were transported in a container and locked-up in a
barn for nine days with meagre food. They walked many miles in the bitter cold before
reaching Poland through Lithuania but were arrested and returned to the Army camp in the
Baltic state. After receiving some money from relatives in Denmark they were returned to
Sri Lanka through Moscow.In the meantime, the Sri Lanka government has
continued to persist in its denial that Tamils have a well founded fear of persecution if
they return to the island. (British Refugee Council, Sri Lanka Monitor,
On 18 August 1998, Denmark signed a repatriation agreement with Sri Lanka. The British
Refugee Council, Sri
Lanka Monitor, reported in September 1998:
"Despite increasing signs of tension in the capital, and warnings from human
rights organisations, the Danish government has signed a repatriation pact with Sri Lanka.
Denmark became the third European country on 18 August to sign an agreement with Sri Lanka
for the repatriation of rejected asylum-seekers, following the examples of Switzerland and
Netherlands. A number of Sri Lankans had been returned before the agreement was signed.
The repatriation will be phased and the accord envisages the return of 350
asylum-seekers in the first year. ... Two weeks earlier, Emergency rule was extended to
the whole of Sri Lanka. NGOs have highlighted the unsafe conditions in Colombo and other
parts of the island for Tamils and the continuing violations of human rights."
The Colombo based Human Rights
Action Committee ( firstname.lastname@example.org ) in a Press
Release on 8 April 1999 declared:
"Veluppillai Balachandran, a 39 year old Tamil refugee,
killed himself on the 23rd March 1999, rather than be deported to Sri Lanka. He had
previously staged a hunger strike to attract attention to his plight while he was held in
the deportation prison (in Moers - NRW) and he had given several warnings to the courts
and to the authorities in the deportation prison that he would kill himself rather than be
deported to be tortured by the racist Sri Lankan military. Mr. Balachandrans suicide
is a tragic indictment of the asylum process in Ger-many where a Tamil who clearly had a
well founded fear of persecution" was rejected as a genuine refugee and thereby
left with no option but to kill himself."
The British Refugee Council Sri Lanka Monitor commenting on the plight of Tamil asylum seekers in Germany said:
"Sources say at least 50 Sri Lankan asylum-seekers have been deported from Germany
in the last six months. The UK-based National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns says
asylum-seeker V Balachandran, 39, committed suicide in a German prison on 23 March, before
deportation to Sri Lanka.
The German Foreign Ministry claims that the 700 people
disappeared in Jaffna in 1996 were LTTE cadre who had infiltrated the peninsula after
its capture by the Army. The Ministry further claims that the Sri Lankan authorities implement the Emergency regulations and the
Prevention of Terrorism Act in a pragmatic way and regarding
torture, have taken steps to improve the situation.
But the US State Department reports that security forces continue to torture and
mistreat detainees and the government has not made regulations under torture law to
prosecute security personnel. In a March
Background Paper, UNHCR, quoting sources, reports on torture,
executions and mass arrests of Tamils in Colombo.
UNHCR continues its passive or indirect monitoring of rejected Sri Lankan
asylum-seekers from Switzerland and informally assists Denmark and Netherlands to check on
returned refugees. UNHCR also receives information regarding refugee returns from Norway.
UNHCR reiterates its view that Sri Lankan asylum-seekers whose claims have been processed
through full and fair procedures and found not to fulfil the refugee criteria may be
returned safely to Sri Lanka. This, UNHCR adds, does not obviate other reasons for
non-return such as is contemplated under the UN Convention on Torture."