Sri Lanka: Refugees, Economic Migrants, and Humanitarian Obligations

In the links to start this week, I mentioned the potential pending refugee crisis in Syria and Jordan. Today, I’d like to examine another refugee situation evolving in another part of the world.

Does everyone remember the Sri Lankan civil war with the Tamil Tigers? In case you don’t, here’s a quick rundown:

Crash Course: Sri Lankan Conflict

Sri Lanka is an island nation in the Indian Ocean. The dominant ethnic group is the Sinhalese, but in the north of the country there is a sizable Tamil minority that has been seeking independence for years.

The armed branch of the independence movement is know as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or the Tamil Tigers. The group has been labeled as a terrorist organization by the U.S., E.U., Canada, India and Australia. (To be fair, the group is credited with pioneering the use of suicide bombers with their Black Tiger unit.) However, the Sri Lankan government has also been implicated in human rights violations including forced conscription and the use of child soldiers.

In 2009, the civil war declared officially over, with the LTTE routed. But the problems the war led to are far from over.

Current Refugee Crisis

For one thing, although the war is considered to be over, there are still remnants of the LTTE engaging in occasional guerrilla attacks against the government, and that could potentially continue for years.

For another, Tamils living in northern Sri Lanka continue to fear retribution from the government forces for past support (or alleged past support) for the Tamil Tigers.

And then there is the fact that the civil war, which endured for roughly thirty years, decimated parts of the Sri Lanka economy, particularly in the Tamil-populated territory that saw most of the fighting.

Out of desperation, many of Sri Lanka’s Tamils have attempted to make their way across thousands of miles to Australia, traveling in fishing boats.

However, a new Australian law prevents the Sri Lankans who make it to Australia from settling there. Instead, they are moved to Papua New Guinea, where their asylum requests are assessed. They are either then settled in Papua New Guinea or sent back to Sri Lanka. Since 2012, 1300 Sri Lankans have been sent back, 1100 of them against their will. Some have even refused to get off the Australian customs boats that removed them from Australia.

One of the reasons for Australia’s new law is the familiar concern we see in so many countries regarding immigrants: whether or not the country can support an influx of foreigners while providing resources, services, and preserving their national culture.

However, another interesting point to consider is the perceived difference between refugees/political asylum seekers and economic migrants.

The U.N. and the Red Cross have both expressed concerns over the new Australian efforts to limit the number of people granted asylum in their country.

Basically, Australia (and many other countries, including the U.S.) is of the opinion that it does not have humanitarian obligations to take in economic migrants, the way it does for people fleeing political repression. So if a migrant’s main stated reason for fleeing their country is that they are unable to make a living there, a country like Australia doesn’t have to take them, whereas someone who has, for example, been jailed for writing dissident political tracts, is much more likely to be accepted.

The problem in many cases, including that of Sri Lanka, is that the line between refugee and economic migrant is not always so clear-cut. For instance, if a farmer’s lands have been razed by battles between the government and the LTTE, he can’t make a living, but it is because he was a victim of violent conflict. If a storekeeper can’t do business because the government is harassing him over perceived links to the Tamil Tigers, can he claim political refugee status or is he “only” an economic migrant?

This is a debate that matters not just in Australia or Sri Lanka, but everywhere. Ethnic conflicts, civil wars, and other forms of inter- and intrastate violence continue all over the world. And every single one of those conflicts produces refugees, internally displaced people, and migrants. Figuring out exactly what our obligations are to these people and how we can balance concerns for humanitarianism and security and the allocation of resources and services will always be a timely and vital discussion to have.


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