By Michael Roberts (Adjunct associate professor of anthropology at the University of Adelaide)

AS a dual Australian Sri Lankan national, what has struck me most about the ongoing debate in Australia about Sri Lankan boat people is the abysmal ignorance about Sri Lanka’s geography and distribution of peoples. This has led to the inability of Australians to put Tamil migration in its historical context and instead to uncritically accept tales of Tamil persecution and even genocide that are patently untrue.

Those known as Ceylon Tamils did not just begin migrating because of the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka. In fact, Tamil migration is a two-stage process and it has been under way for more than a century.

Ceylon Tamils began migrating from the north to the south in search of jobs from the late 19th century. By 1921, they constituted 11.5 per cent of the population in Colombo, while Indian Tamils (more recent migrants from the nearby state on the Indian mainland of Tamil Nadu) accounted for 13.4 per cent. So Tamils, (both Ceylonese and of more recent Indian origin), have resided in the city environs for generations. Some Ceylon Tamils have also been a segment of its Westernised elite. However, such status did not protect them during the mini-pogroms of 1958 and 1977 and the major pogrom of July 1983, which involved widespread assaults on Tamil persons and property in the south of the island.

It is worth noting that although the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam had been formed in 1976, and the goal of an independent state of Eelam proclaimed that year, the pogrom of 1983 – which followed a deadly assault by Tigers on the military – is widely regarded as the start of the civil war.

While middle-class Tamils have, together with Burgher, Sinhalese and Muslim families, been participating in the migration from Sri Lanka in search of better employment and education for their children since the 50s, the big surge in migration occurred after July 1983.

Despite this migration, Colombo District has not been denuded of its Tamil population. The Tamil population as a whole rose from 11.2 per cent in 1981 to 12.2 per cent in 2001. The number in the metropolitan cluster in fact rose by 58,291 in that period. This is because migration to foreign lands has been exceeded by internal movements from the northern and eastern parts of the island, to escape the conflict and in search of better economic opportunities.

Tamils have been under-represented in state-sector employment for some time, no doubt at least in part due to positive discrimination in favour of Sinhalese and negative discrimination against Tamils. Remarkably, however, a handful of senior Tamil officers remained in the armed services, a minute proportion of the senior ranks, but notable in a context where one might anticipate a zero figure. Moreover, a number of Tamils are sprinkled through the mercantile sector and professions. Indeed, some of the richest entrepreneurs are Tamil. Such success, however, has not eliminated memories of July 1983 and the sense of political marginalisation among some Tamils.

Such sentiments encourage some Tamils to migrate; but in a fair proportion of cases, the desire to migrate is inspired by a concern for the educational prospects of their children and the monetary support provided by kinfolk who are already in some Western country. The migration of Tamils from the Jaffna Peninsula and Batticaloa regions to Colombo in the recent past, therefore, is often a first stage in a projected step outwards.

This second step, of outmigration, calls for patience. Not all can meet the strict criteria laid down in Australia for skilled migrants or family reunion. Some, therefore, seek the illegal pathway provided by people smugglers who take them to Italy or Australia. It is usually young males, mostly Sinhalese but also Tamils and Muslims, who take the sea lanes by trawler to Italy.

It appears recently a few families elected to fly to Malaysia where they boarded the Jaya Lestari. This was a costly exercise. It also required passports and visas. It is unlikely that any of the Tamils (numbers uncertain) who slipped out of the internally displaced persons camps by, say, July could have secured the necessary papers in two months, unless they had connections with the LTTE or criminals engaged in forgery. In view of all the above, my conjecture is that Brindha, the tearful nine-year-old filmed by the ABC pleading for asylum, and her family did not spend time “in the jungle” as they claimed and were not fleeing the IDP camps, but are much more likely to be from the Tamil communities of Jaffna or Colombo. This is not to say they should be refused admission to Australia as migrants, simply that they are unlikely to be refugees.

Australians engaged in public debate about Sri Lanka need to be better informed. People such as Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young have uncritically accepted “the stories of the conditions in the camps . . . of people being persecuted and executed simply because they say, ‘We don’t want to be here any more’ “. The fact is there is absolutely no evidence that people are being persecuted, much less executed. There is a vital distinction between political dissatisfaction and a well-founded fear of persecution, and Australians need to recognise that what is driving Tamil boatpeople is a mix of political grievance and economic hope, which is inspiring migratory moves along uncomfortable, and even perilous, paths.