While many in Sri Lanka celebrated the recent end of the country's decades-long civil war, the impact of the war's bloody finale on displaced and migratory Sri Lankans is no cause for cheer. The violence perpetrated by the Sri Lankan goverment and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the last months of the war dramatically increased forced migration within and without Sri Lanka. In an interesting twist on the typical tale of civil war-spurred migration, Sri Lankan diaspora communities, many former refugees themselves, are marshalling their political voice in support of those fleeing the violence.
In the last few months of the war, nearly 300,000 internally displaced people, including 80,000 children, were forced out of their homes and are now interned in refugee camps. Such camps are generally dangerous places, particularly for women and children, who risk not only disease but also sexual violence. To make matters worse, the Sri Lankan government has blocked the Red Cross and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees from accessing some of these camps. For those able to escape Sri Lanka, the situation is equally grim; last week, fifty-five Sri Lankan asylum seekers whose boat drifted ashore in Indonesia (en route to Australia) went on hunger strike after being placed in prison.
These floating asylum seekers followed a well-worn path; throughout Sri Lanka's lengthy civil war, Tamils have fled in large numbers to Australia and Canada. In these two nations in particular, the diaspora have prospered and grown into a powerful political force. In Canada, Tamil leaders have asked the government to tell the Sri Lankan government that it must allow aid groups to access all refugees and that it should reach a political settlement with the Tamil minority. The Canadian government appears to have acceded to these requests, and has also been responsive to the diaspora's request to fast-track Tamil refugee applications. In Australia, where the war has resulted in violence between Sinhalese and Tamil communities, Tamil groups have requested that the government reinstate a humanitarian visa for Sri Lankans, a move that would minimize the dangers of illegal border-crossing.
So what impact will the unusually strong voice of the diaspora have on the war's end? If Tamil leaders abroad can leverage their political power in their nations of residence to successfully demand a political settlement from the Sri Lankan government, this power might prove a very valuable ingredient of long-term stability. It's also possible that the well-established Tamil diaspora might enable Sri Lankan Tamils to vote with their feet by emigrating, thus draining the island of its ethnic diversity -- a less appealing result. In the worst case scenario, if the government refuses to include Tamil interests in a political settlement, Tamils abroad might enable locals to resist such a decision and even revive the long-running ethnic conflict. We can only hope for the first outcome, in which case it will be interesting to see whether and when the Tamil diaspora might return to their native land.