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After the war: why Sri Lankan refugees continue to come to Australia

Their civil war may have ended, but the number of asylum seekers from Sri Lanka are on the increase. EPA/Wisnu Adi

In the debate about Sri Lankan asylum seekers in Australia, one question seems to come up again and again.

Why, when the bloody twenty-six-year conflict that caused so many to leave their homes has ended, do more and more Sri Lankan refugees continue to make the dangerous journey to Australia?

As you might imagine the answer is not a simple one and goes both to the history of the conflict and Colombo’s complicated road to peace.

Winning the war, losing the peace

In 2009, the long Sri Lankan civil war ended with the government forcing a complete defeat for the independence struggle of the Tamil Tigers (known as the LTTE).

The end of the violence evoked both hope and apprehension on all sides: on the one hand, there was the promise of a new era that could draw on the great natural riches of the country. On the other, there was uncertainty about whether all parties could coexist peacefully in the future.

Certainly, the problems to be addressed at the end of the war were daunting. More than 100,000 people were dead, hundreds of thousands had been displaced, large parts of the country — mostly in the Tamil north — were devastated. Families and communities were divided, and there was a legacy of suspicion, resentment and trauma.

At the outset, the government had seen its primary task as that of enforcing control of the north and rebuilding the shattered infrastructure. It set about this task with ruthless efficiency and its efforts were not without success. Impressive outcomes were achieved with respect to economic growth, rebuilding of roads, houses and public buildings, and standards of health and education have been maintained.

On the other hand, the problems that generated the civil war - which go back to the complex legacy of colonialism and the Tamil conviction that their culture and political rights are not protected - remain unresolved.

In addition, with no opposition, the government both inside and outside Sri Lanka, were emboldened. The excesses of the army in occupying the north, extrajudicial abductions, inequities in the reconstruction process and a perceived threat of Sinhala colonisation have been highlighted in the world press. Countries that for decades supported the government’s struggle against the LTTE have become strident critics.

For the Sri Lankan government it is becoming a classic case of winning the war but losing the peace.

The diaspora

There has always been economic emigration from Sri Lanka, and many citizens left the country to escape the seemingly never-ending conflict. In fact, there are around the world about two million Sri Lankan expatriates who send back payments to their home country amounting to about 7%of GDP.

But the recent upsurge of immigration is a new phenomenon. In 2012, more than 6,500 Sri Lankan boat people arrived in Australia — an increase of thirty times over previous years.

After much bitter debate, the Gillard government’s approach, a modified version of John Howard’s “Pacific Solution”, appears to satisfy no-one. Apart from its great expense – the cost of border protection in 2012 is now running at about $10 billion — it appears unable to stem the tide of refugees and will undoubtedly add to their suffering.

It seems obvious that the best way to address the problem would be to remove the reasons for people to take flight in the first place. However, these reasons are complex and the usual simplistic explanations are not enough.

While some boat people are undoubtedly fleeing direct threats of physical violence this does not apply to everyone. Similarly, to label all as “economic” migrants is mistaken. Some are political refugees and a significant proportion — some estimates say up to 20% — are of Sinhala ethnicity. It is also obviously inadequate to blame the phenomenon on “people smugglers”: after all, their trade depends on demand.

Flight after conflict

Part of the complexity is that in addition to fleeing persecution, people also flee the void of meaning that is left when a conflict ends.

In fact, the flow of refugees commonly increases, not decreases, after the end of a conflict. This happened after the wars in Vietnam and Bosnia-Herzegovina, after conflicts across Africa and South America, and even after the First and Second World Wars.

The million or so people who left South-east Asia after the wars in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were not fleeing straightforward oppression: they were leaving behind sites of trauma and despair that had become too painful.

The flight of Sri Lankan citizens — Tamil, Sinhala and Muslim — after the conclusion of the recent civil war largely fits this pattern. The alleged autocratic nature of the regime, continuing human rights abuses and threats to democratic processes, the freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary may well exist, but they are not the reasons why thousands of people are prepared to risk their lives to leave their homeland.

They do not see a future for themselves there. They are leaving because their hope, depleted by decades of conflict, has not been restored by the cessation of hostilities and the restoration of some level of material wealth.

To build confidence in a shared future requires careful and deliberate action across all levels of government and civil society.

A process of reconciliation needed

Sri Lanka today is a place of promise, but also dire challenges. The fighting may have stopped but the work of reconstruction and reconciliation has barely begun.

Provision of material wealth and the proliferation of commodities are not in themselves sufficient to create confidence in the future. The ending of a war does not automatically resolve the conflict that precipitated it. Availability of the bare material goods does not recreate a sense of purpose and value or fill the void of meaning.

These things can be achieved only by drawing together the disparate communities in a spirit of mutual forgiveness. It is time for Sri Lanka to allow itself the possibility of moving along such a path to reconciliation and for the international community to support it in doing so. The end of the conflict has opened a window of opportunity that must not be lost.

Part two of this article will look at how Sri Lanka can move towards reconciliation and what role Australia can play.

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