Unless they are former terrorists. And all of them could have chosen resettlement in nearby India if they wished

As arrivals of Sri Lankans in Australia claiming asylum continue, there is ample evidence to suggest the situation in Sri Lanka is very different from that portrayed by refugee advocates. Indeed, there is strong evidence that since the defeat of the Tamil Tigers in May 2009 Sri Lanka has moved towards stability and inter-ethnic reconciliation, rather than widespread or institutionalised persecution of its Tamil population.

Sri Lanka’s steady return to post-conflict normalcy has been widely reported internationally. Key benchmarks include:

* The restitution of freedom of movement for all internally displaced persons.

* The resettlement of 193,607 IDPs throughout northern Sri Lanka (leaving only 76,205 IDPs yet to be resettled).

* The rehabilitation and gradual release from custody of nearly 2000 former Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam combatants, co-ordinated with the International Migration Organisation and funded by the West.

* The recruitment of several thousand more Tamil-speaking police constables to serve in Tamil-majority areas.

* Removal of most travel restrictions nationwide and the lifting of the security curfew throughout the Northern and Eastern provinces, as well as progress in reconstructing roads and infrastructure.

* And, most significantly, the restoration of democracy through the re-emergence of Tamil political parties previously suppressed by the LTTE and their free participation in presidential elections.

In the naturally complex aftermath of a three-decade-long conflict, Sri Lanka has invested considerable material, financial and societal resources towards restoring normalcy. Indeed, although the nation still has much work to do, its rapid and practical progress is a noteworthy achievement after such a long and bitter conflict.

The Bishop of Jaffna, Thomas Sundranayagam (an ethnic Tamil), wrote in January: “Jaffna is returning to normal. Commercial activities are taking place and the civilians are also very happy. They can now easily visit Colombo and other areas. People from the south also come to Jaffna.”

Sri Lanka’s economic recovery has also been steady.. Travel advisories have been downgraded worldwide, leading to a significant growth in tourism. Early this year The New York Times rated it the No.1 travel destination for 2010.

In September last year, Michael Delaney, the assistant US trade representative for South Asia, told a news conference: “We had over 40 US companies, including several Fortune 500 companies, that came to Sri Lanka. We think the economic boost from the end of the war is much greater than commonly believed.”

Australian investor Mark Scannell, who has begun construction of a multimillion-dollar hotel in eastern Sri Lanka, says: “Sri Lanka is safe and free for anyone to holiday or invest [in]. Tourists should disregard Western negative propaganda and experience what the country has to offer.”

So, why does Australia see a growing number of Sri Lankan Tamil asylum-seekers? It appears that Australia’s relative proximity as the closest Western country, high living standards and perceptions of sympathetic treatment have been a significant pull factor in attracting them. Australia is also the nearest country that is a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention.

Sri Lankan Tamil asylum-seekers who come to Australia have deliberately avoided the option of seeking asylum in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, only a two-hour boat ride away from Sri Lanka. Although India is not a signatory to the convention, it has long been hospitable to Tamil asylum-seekers from Sri Lanka.

V. Suryanarayan, a retired senior professor affiliated with the University of Madras and a respected expert on the subject (as well as a Tamil), wrote in September 2008: “Geographical contiguity, ethnic affinities and easy availability of boats made Tamil Nadu a natural choice. The government provides free housing, free medical care and free education, in addition to financial doles and supply of essential commodities like rice, kerosene and sugar at subsidised rates.

What is more, the government of Tamil Nadu has permitted the refugees to take up employment, a gesture not extended to Chakma refugees from Bangladesh. As far as refugees are concerned, it is not roses all the way, but . . . [they] do not feel any sense of insecurity in Tamil Nadu.”

There are several reasons why Tamil asylum-seekers from Sri Lanka come to Australia instead of going to Tamil Nadu. Some are attempting to use Australia as a conduit to the West generally, as seen in the Oceanic Viking stand-off, where a note thrown to Australian journalists and published in The Age said: “Australia doesn’t want to accept us. Send us to other countries like Canada, Norway, Switzerland, New Zealand.”

Indeed, some of the asylum-seekers intending to enter Australia have for many years resided in countries other than Sri Lanka, such as India, Malaysia and Indonesia. A notable example was “Alex” Kuhendrarajah, the spokesman for a group of Tamils in Indonesia, who, contrary to his claims, had lived in Chennai, India, for many years and had previously been deported from Canada because of his involvement in criminal activities.

There are other reasons why so many Tamil asylum-seekers come to Australia instead of joining efforts to rebuild Sri Lankan society or obtaining asylum in Tamil Nadu. Some appear to be LTTE fighters seeking to evade legitimate detention in Sri Lanka, and have deliberately avoided India, where there is a high probability of arrest and detention, as the LTTE is a proscribed terrorist organisation.

Australia, unlike the US, Canada and the European Union, has not proscribed the LTTE as a terrorist organisation, which is likely to constitute a significant pull factor for LTTE fighters keen to seek asylum.

Second, a majority of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora, an estimated 800,000 people, is based in the West and there have been indications that sympathetic elements within the diaspora have encouraged and funded the passage of asylum-seekers to the West. As one Australian Tamil community leader recently remarked: “People who have help from overseas will be able to pay the smugglers and come.”

After the conflict in Sri Lanka ended, genuine displaced civilians (as opposed to LTTE combatants) traumatised by the violent final phases of the insurgency could not be faulted for wanting to leave Sri Lanka in search of a brighter future in Australia or elsewhere. Even with the end of the insurgency, to varying degrees Tamil fears of discrimination and Sinhalese triumphalism are likely to remain.

However, there is minimal evidence to support claims of widespread or institutionalised persecution, and given the rapidly improving situation in Sri Lanka, the Australian government should exercise heightened caution and scepticism in assessing the validity of asylum-seeker claims from Sri Lanka.