They Came by Boat, They Go by Boat – the Cycle of Tamil Boat People Transiting Sri Lanka
Posted on October 21st, 2009

By Kumar Moses

They came by boat illegally from Tamil Nadu to Sri Lanka and now they leave Sri Lanka, illegally, by boat in search of greener pastures. Tamil boat people are in world news all for the wrong reasons. Following Australia’s relaxation of policy on illegal immigrants, a very large number of Tamil boat people started arriving in Australian waters. Similarly they have travelled to Canada, Europe and India in hundreds of thousands over the years. Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora today stands at 1.3 million. Most of them are either illegal immigrants or blood relatives of illegal immigrants. What most people fail to see is that,

1. this is a cycle
they are economic refugees
their numbers will not decrease after the war, and,there are social implications.

 Tamil boat people are called “ƒ”¹…”kallathoni’ by fellow Tamils in Sri Lanka. It is not considered a good word but is common parlance especially among high caste Tamils from Jaffna referring to economically less powerful Tamils who later came to Sri Lanka by boat from Tamil Nadu. The antagonism is most vicious within the Tamil community. Strangely, there is no equivalent Sinhala language word for them and the only word used to identify them is Tamil!

 It is a cycle that has been happening for a long time. Following the Kalinga Magha invasion of Sri Lanka in 1215CE, Sri Lankans of all races, including Tamils, moved southwards. This made the north an area without people which was exploited illegally by Tamil Nadu boat people. Crossing the shallow 9 mile strait was very easy and a large number of people from Tamil Nadu settled down in Sri Lanka’s north and north-east. Following continued European invasions starting from 1505CE, hundreds of thousands of Tamil Nadu people were illegally brought to Sri Lanka by boat as labourers for tobacco, cinchona, cocoa, tea and rubber plantations especially after 1658CE. Tobacco and cinchona plantations were mostly in the North. Jaffna tobacco was the best in the world at that time. Tobacco needs a very high man days per year compared to most other crops and a large number of workers came from Tamil Nadu and settled in Jaffna.

 Even after Independence in 1948CE, the biggest security threat faced by the country was illegal Tamil boat people. General JED Perera recently revealed that had the armed forces not stopped Tamil boat people, Sri Lanka’s ethnic composition would be different today. In that event Sri Lanka would have become another Tamil Nadu. So widespread was the incidence of Tamil boat people illegally arriving in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka always had a higher GDP per capita, a higher quality of life index and a lower population density than Tamil Nadu. These economic prospects attracted them to Sri Lanka.

 During 1920s boatloads of them went to Malaya and Singapore for higher economic prospects.

 But the war made all Sri Lankan suffer. People with deeper roots in Sri Lanka generally stayed back to face the challenge while the others took flight in comparatively larger numbers. First they went to Tamil Nadu but soon found that life was worse. So they looked for greener pastures (higher economic prospects) and found them. The next phase of the cycle started happening. It is from Sri Lanka to Australia, Canada and Europe. Within 350 years, millions of people originally from Tamil Nadu ended up in Western countries through transit in Sri Lanka.

 They painted a horrible picture of Tamil Nadu when they came to Sri Lanka (Ceylon) claiming that there were no proper jobs, healthcare, safety in Tamil Nadu and today’s boat people claim similar things. Some of their claims are hilarious. One man, identifying himself as Alex, told The Australian four contradictory things. One, Tamil people are tortured and raped in Sri Lanka. Two, he left his wife and children in Sri Lanka, all alone, and made the trip! If torture and rape happens in Sri Lanka as he claims, how can he even consider leaving his young and attractive wife with young children in Sri Lanka and leave for Australia? Three, he said there are no economic prospects for Tamils in Sri Lanka. It is a fact that the richest people in Sri Lanka are Tamils but his fourth statement is even more convincing. Fourth, he said he paid US$15,000 to go to Australia while some others paid US$45,000 per person to go to Canada. It’s a hell of a lot of money even for a Canadian!

 The flow of economic refugees is not going to stop after the war. Sri Lanka’s development will accelerate after the war but it will never equal the economies of Australia, Canada or European countries, at least not during the life time of Sri Lankans living today. So there will forever be the strong desire to reach greener pastures. Discrediting Sri Lanka is their gateway to those greener pastures in the humanitarian visa category which is the only unlimited category. If a young family of four leaves Sri Lanka, the cost of 28 years of free school education, possibly 8 years of free tertiary education and over 60 years of free medical care will be lost to Sri Lanka. However, there is little Sri Lanka can do to stop them. In fact people should not be discouraged from seeking a better quality of life abroad. Those who left Sri Lanka legally still love their Motherland.

 What matters now is to concentrate on those who stay, and exploit the opportunities made available to the country due to large scale migration. It particularly affects the North which is now in dire need of people to redevelop it. In six years in 2015, it will be 800 years since the mass exodus of Sri Lankans from the North. Now is the time to reclaim and regain what Sri Lankans left behind 800 years ago through multiethnic colonisation of the North.

 Boat people came and went, but Sri Lankans of all races, remained unchanged. This is the recipe of triumphalism of Sri Lankans who survived for over 3,000 years with remarkable adaptability and with even greater love for their island nation.

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