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Migrant Remittances Drive "Asylum-Seeker" Out-Migration from Sri Lanka

Migrant Remittances Drive "Asylum-Seeker" Out-Migration from Sri Lanka

By Dinoo Kelleghan - "Tamils flee for cash, not from harm"

In contrast to the weary boatloads of Sri Lankans making the dangerous asylum-shopping trip to Australia, millions of different shoppers are out in force here as the island prepares for Sinhala and Tamil New Year celebrations this weekend. This year, economists noted a change in the spending patterns - lower-income people are spending more freely than the better-paid shoppers in the capital, Colombo. The reason? The gushing torrents of remittances home from Sri Lankans who have gone abroad for employment, often making empty claims of persecution to leapfrog others who stand patiently in long queues outside Western embassies in Colombo to get a work visa.

The hunger for foreign money is intense in Sri Lanka, born of decades of dependency on remittances from those who went overseas legally to work, and the tens of thousands who smuggled themselves out of the country during the 30-year civil war that ended in 2009. Asylum-seeking has become a habit, unconnected to reality, and the trawler that sailed into Geraldton this week with 66 Sri Lankans aboard is simply a part of that economic pattern.

THE asylum boat that arrived in Geraldton this week should be viewed in context. The number of Sri Lankans of every walk of life who have at least one relative in Australia is astonishing. Every doctor, every lawyer, trishaw driver I have met over the past two months after returning home following 33 years in Australia has a family member in Melbourne or Sydney. Vicariously they will ask you where you have lived, whether jobs are not plentiful, whether life is not marvellous overseas.

Yes, you can find work in Australia easily. Yes, you get money there even if you don't work. People get free houses there, money for getting a baby, sustained help in finding work. Just a little bit of hardship at the start but everyone knows you'll get there in the end, and if you go in by boat as an asylum-seeker the Australian government just has to take notice of you, and they start looking after you straight away.

These are facts, and no matter what propaganda Canberra puts out to deter people-smuggling, these facts are good enough to make many Sri Lankans make a down payment of half a million rupees to a people-smuggler and pledge to pay the rest when they start earning in Australia, plus, for Tamils blackmailed emotionally by the Tiger-controlled smuggling syndicates, a dollar a month for "Tamil welfare" for the rest of time.

The civil war has been over almost four years. There is no foundation on which Sri Lankans - Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim or Burgher - can claim to have a well-founded fear of persecution.

There are a few individuals who have tense relations with government and other political parties but my own experience as a member over seven years on Australia's Refugee Review Tribunal indicates that embassies here are well aware of them, share information, track them and help them with visas for getaways.

As Sri Lanka's high commissioner to Canberra, Thisara Samarasinghe, said the so-called asylum-seekers were fleeing to Australia for "economic opportunities". "I do not consider there's any Sri Lankan should leave Sri Lankan shores and ask for refugee status in any country," Admiral Samarasinghe told ABC's Late line on Wednesday night.

Tamils in the northeast who get on the boats to Australia are not fleeing persecution but leaving for a chance of a better life. The area has always been poorer than the rest of Sri Lanka - it is dryer, harder to cultivate, there has never been any industry, and this was the fault of governments since independence in 1948 but also of industrialists, many of whom are Tamil, who never bothered to invest there.

The decades of Tiger control of the area cemented in the poverty while the rest of the country was starting to prosper. The Tigers, who collected millions of dollars for development of "Eelam", merely squatted on the land and controlled it with a fascist hand.

While life is poor and jobs are hard to find the facts are at variance with those who claim that Tamils in the area live destitute and face persecution from the authorities. The government-run Bank of Ceylon in 2011 revealed that within two years after the war's end, about 40,000 displaced persons in the north who lived in the main Manik farm IDP camp had opened new accounts and that about $ US1 billion then rested in some 80,000 IDP accounts. When I interviewed some former Tiger fighters last year who are now living normally following rehabilitation, none of them said they were suffering from persecution even when pressed. Their problems were lack of jobs, lack of education and training to get jobs, and difficulties with others over contested land.

As for claims that Tamils face persecution simply for having been actual or suspected Tiger foot-soldiers, the outgoing head of the International Organisation for Migration, Richard Danziger, was reported saying on April 10 that the IOM had encountered about a dozen complaints of current harassment from the 8000 former Tigers fighters it had been assisting. About 300 ex-militants were still in custody but 12,000 had been through rehabilitation.

Even if, hypothetically, Tamils in Sri Lanka's north and east suffered persecution they would find a much easier and shorter and cheaper passage to India, just across the narrow Palk Strait. The fact that some of the Tamils coming by boat to Australia originate from camps in India in fact makes persecution claims against Sri Lanka irrelevant.

Sri Lanka's Tamil population is spread widely throughout the island not huddled in fearful groups in a few places. Tamils now outnumber Sinhalese in the capital, Colombo. At least six of the 20 billionaires on the Sri Lankan stock exchange are Tamil.

The country is doing well despite rising prices - growth is more than 6 per cent. But there are about two million Sri Lankans working abroad, earning enough to send home about $ US 10 bn ($9.5bn). That's the party many Sri Lankans want to join.

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