Sri Lanka’s brutal war against the Tamils, a native ethnic group that has suffered legal, economic and political discrimination for more than half a century, has come at a huge domestic and global cost. Human rights in the Sinhalese-dominated nation are consistently violated, with journalists, activists and Tamils routinely murdered with impunity. In 2009 Sri Lanka’s position in the annual Transparency International Corruption Perception Index fell to ninety-seventh among 180 states, from ninety-second in 2008.
The country’s civil war, in which tens of thousands were killed, ended this year, in an outcome that emboldened the government in Colombo. But the resolution left the Tamils even further from self-determination and resulted in an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. The government placed around 300,000 Tamils against their will in concentration camps in the nation’s northeast, though the regime claimed recently it would soon release all captives.
This is the context for Australia’s latest asylum seeker drama, an issue generating negative coverage in the international press for Australia’s inability to manage refugees in an orderly manner that comports with international standards. A few thousand refugees, many of whom come from Sri Lanka, are attempting to reach the safety of Australia by leaky boats. It is a perilous journey that surely qualifies people with the kind of tenacity and initiative any country would want to embrace. But Australian authorities prefer to appear tough on “illegals” to appease right-wing claims of soft border-protection laws.
Largely absent from the debate is the fact that Australia annually allows countless thousands of wannabe refugees to land in the country by plane and overstay their visas. But the sight of (mostly) dark-skinned and desperate asylum seekers arriving by boat has created a toxic environment of demonization. Voices of reason, such as Tamil Australians explaining the profound discrimination in Sri Lanka, are heard too infrequently.
Australia is not alone. Italy under Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi leads a country increasingly dismissive of refugee claims, with callous measures against those fleeing violence in faraway lands. In America, fury against “illegal aliens” continues unabated, fueled by rising unemployment and tough economic times.
The issue goes to the heart of refugee flows in the shadow of war and the ability of the political and media elites to drum up fear of a handful of people fleeing persecution in conflicts that are often backed, armed and fueled by Western states. Sri Lanka’s war was partially armed by Israel, China and India.
Australia, a largely uninhabited island, has long nursed fears of invasion by its northern neighbors. During the Second World War, Japan filled the predator role, but Indonesia has long remained a mystery to many Australians, despite Bali being a popular holiday destination. As a former outpost of the British Empire, it was perhaps once understandable that Australia saw Asia as a threat. The northern city of Darwin was bombed by Japan in 1942, and white man’s racial purity was a theory widely accepted until the White Australia policy was finally abandoned in the mid-1970s. Nonwhite immigration was barred because, in the words of its key architect Alfred Deakin, “alien races” may threaten the nation. Australia is a Western enclave in a region with vastly different values and concepts of justice to many authoritarian regimes nearby. Fear of the unknown has existed since the English landed in 1788. Though perhaps no more serious than in other Western states, an insular, island mentality sometimes rears its ugly head.