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.