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Boat Migration to Australia

A Rejoinder

This critique of "Sri Lankan Boat Migration to Australia: Motivations and Dilemmas" (EPW, 31 August 2013) argues that the article was a study based on subjective views expressed by a limited number of interviewees and was partisan in its fi ndings.

“Sri Lankan Boat Migration to Australia: Motivations and Dilemmas” by Emily Howie (EPW, 31 August 2013) appears to be based largely on conjectures.

This study appears to be subjective and based on views expressed by a limited and selective 20-30 interviewees. While the non-disclosure of the names of the interviewees is understandable, the non-explanation of the process of selection of the interviewees is inexcusable. What is the background of people in Australia and Sri Lanka (not the names) who introduced the interviewees to the author?

Howie’s study lacks objectivity on several counts. First, as a refugee advocate in Melbourne, there is obviously a certain perspective through which the author arrives at the conclusion that stories from boat migrants depict complex political and economic motivations for their journeys, contrary to the statements by both governments that the boats are filled solely, or primarily, with “economic migrants”. Howie is correct in her assessment that the issue of illegal boat migration is complex, but not because of the “rhetoric of economic migration” and “continuing insecurity” as she asserts. She claims that insecurity of women is one of the causes of boat migration. This author agrees with Howie on the issue of insecurity of women in north Sri Lanka due to militarisation (Ranasinghe 2010), but that does not necessarily result in attempts by women to migrate abroad. The following are the results of a survey I conducted in late 2010 which is hitherto unpublished.

Results of A Survey

A rapid assessment of some of the most vulnerable youths and women-headed households was undertaken throughout the Jaffna district to ascertain their desire to migrate abroad or not and the drivers of the desire to migrate. This rapid assessment was undertaken through questionnaire-based interviews with youths using a short questionnaire from 28 September to 10 October in 2010. One hundred and twenty short interviews were conducted in eight of the 15 divisional secretariat (sub-district) areas largely among former combatants and supporters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Respondents were identified through a purposive sampling method. It was learnt from anecdotal evidence and knowledgeable persons that the most vulnerable groups of people who might want to migrate abroad through illegal channels are former combatants and supporters/sympathisers of the LTTE. People who have kith and kin or friends abroad could be lured to migrate abroad due to the “demonstration effect” (imitating the lifestyle of peers within and outside the country). The fourth category of people who are prone to illegal migration is women for marriage as a result of the gender imbalance in the Jaffna population.

We purposefully targeted the first two categories – ex-combatants and supporters of the LTTE – for interviewing for this rapid assessment. Further, women-headed households were also a target group for interviews. Thus, under the overall target category of young (<40 years old) internally displaced people returnees, bulk of the respondents were ex-combatants, Tiger supporters, or women-headed households.

It was found that male youth are more likely to migrate abroad than female youths. Further, the desire to migrate diminishes with rising age of the respondents. Moreover, respondents with relatively lower educational attainment have a higher propensity to migrate abroad. Furthermore, those who are unmarried are more likely to migrate abroad than the married. The overwhelming factors driving migration abroad are poor living conditions (74% of the interviewees) and lack of opportunities in Sri Lanka (41% the interviewees). Thus, economic desolation is the fundamental cause for migration abroad even among ex-combatants. Insecurity is a minor driving factor (only 18% of the interviewees cited this reason).

Of course, I agree with the finding and argument of Howie that economic desolation is partly caused by complex politico-military factors such as legal and illegal appropriation of private lands by the military in the pretext of high security zones and the significant number of military-run farms and enterprises in the former conflict-affected areas depriving locals of their livelihoods (Sarvananthan 2011). What national security purpose does the appropriation of private lands for farming, fishing and allowing the Sri Lankan army and navy to build and operate small-scale tourist hotels serve?

Further, the results of our rapid assessment reveal that the principal motive behind migration (both legal and illegal) is poverty (denoted by “family circumstances”), lack of (livelihood) opportunities, or lower income among the people who are most susceptible to migration abroad. Even the former combatants and sympathisers/supporters of the LTTE (who were the bulk of the respondents to the rapid assessment) did not adduce insecurity as the reason for their intention to migrate abroad. Hence, it is evident that bulk of the refugees fleeing Sri Lanka are economic migrants masquerading as asylum-seekers.

The foregoing results tally with an unpublished survey of young people undertaken in the latter half of 2009 by a team led by Siri Hettige of the University of Colombo throughout the country (including the conflict-affected regions) which revealed that about 50% of the youth surveyed (18-24 years old) in Sri Lanka wanted to go abroad (across all ethnicities). This shows that there is a crisis of confidence on the country among its young citizens.

It is true, as Howie contends, that there is serious misgovernance in Sri Lanka that triggers illegal boat migration by young people of all ethnicities (including from the majority Sinhalese community) to Australia (Ranasinghe 2010). But, why is Australia the choice of would-be illegal migrants? One important factor, as Howie describes, is the relatively lower cost involved.

There is another important factor for the choice of Australia by would-be migrants (especially, Tamils). Australia is one of the few western countries which have not legally banned the LTTE or its humanitarian arm, the Tamils’ Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO) to date. Therefore, former members of the LTTE and its supporters believe that they have a relatively better chance of being accepted as refugees in Australia than in most other countries if they claim to be associated with the LTTE one way or the other.

Actors in Human Smuggling

There are a number of actors involved in human smuggling from Sri Lanka including former LTTE cadres and sympathisers, pro-government Tamil militias, personnel of the armed forces (especially, army and navy personnel), fringe ultranationalist political parties from southern Sri Lanka, certain Tamil office-bearers of the key political party in the ruling coalition government (Sri Lanka Freedom Party – SLFP), some members of the principal Tamil nationalist political party in the eastern and northern provinces (the Tamil National Alliance – TNA) and sympathisers of the cause of Tamil Eelam in India.

There is also anecdotal evidence from the north and east that fringe ultranationalist political parties from the south (in collusion with personnel of the armed forces) are involved in smuggling of Tamils abroad. Besides, France has emerged as the largest recipient of Sri Lankan refugees in Europe in the aftermath of the civil war.

Hence, the organisers of illegal boat migration are multi-ethnic/party/cultural. At least on the issue of illegal boat migration (especially to Australia), there appears to be ethnic, political, and cultural collaboration in Sri Lanka of a dubious kind.


Ranasinghe, Sergie De Silva (2010): “Bitterness Towards the LTTE Has Not Translated into Goodwill Towards the Government”, The Sunday Leader, 14 November,

Sarvananthan, Muttukrishna (2011): “Sri Lanka: Putting Entrepreneurship at the Heart of Economic Revival in the North, East, and Beyond”, Contemporary South Asia, Vol 19, No 2, June, pp 205-13. http://www.tandfonline. com/doi/abs/10.1080/09584935.2011.565313

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