Sri Lanka: a case study on the displacement of the Tamil peoples.

Authors: Karina Juma, Eliza Meeson, and Abarna Selvarajah.

Pictured above: What remained in the civilian village of Mullivaikal following an attack by the Sri Lankan army. Retrieved from:

Historical Context

Sri Lanka has historically been inhabited by diverse ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious groups, including the majority Buddhist Sinhalese and the minority Hindu, Christian and Muslim Tamils. The Tamil people are largely concentrated in the North-East provinces of the island, which many refer to as Eelam (“homeland”) (“Tamil Resistance & Resilience in the Face of Genocide”; Kanapathipallai, 16). In 1815 the entire island came under British colonial control, which was the first time the island had been designated as a unitary political entity under a single administrative structure (“60 years of oppression”; Kanapathipillai, 18). Organised population displacement took place under colonial rule as the British brought over Tamils from India as indentured labourers to work on tea plantations (Kanapathipillai, 3). 

Like in other colonial spaces, the British employed “divide and conquer” strategies in their administration of the island (“Tamil Resistance”; Kanapathipillai, 4-5). A feeling of marginalization amongst the Sinhalese majority, combined with the general rejection of imposed Western values, left fertile ground for a growing Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism (Kanapathipillai, 7). Following a largely peaceful independence movement, in which both Sinhalese and Tamils took active roles, the island gained independence as a democratic centralised “unitary state” on February 4, 1948 (“Tamil Resistance”; Rasaratnam, 134). Over time, the term “nation-state” inSri Lanka came to mean an ethnically exclusive Sinhala state (Kanapathipillai, 9). Demands to establish an independent Tamil nation (otherwise known as Tamil Eelam) emerged following the state’s enactment of multiple discriminatory policies (“Tamil Resistance”; See timeline). 

Tensions accumulated in the outbreak of the Sri Lankan Civil War following the government-sponsored anti-Tamil pogroms of 1983, also known as the ‘Black July’ riots (Rasaratnam, 133). The 26-year long war was fought between the Sri Lankan government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The 1990s saw a surge in large-scale internal displacement in North-Eastern provinces as a result of fighting and intense bombings. The civil war ended in 2009 with an estimated total of 146,679 civilian deaths and thousands of unaccounted personnel and opposition fighters (Report of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka). The state-sponsored targeting of Tamils forced many to flee the island and seek refuge in India and Western countries.

Legal Arguments/International Law

Domestic and International Law was used early on by the state to securitize, militarize and deny the Tamil people of their political will. National security was invoked by the Sri Lankan state as a justification for measures like the 1947 Public Security Ordinance Act and the 1979 Prevention of Terrorism Act, according to which any person who “by words either spoken or intended to be read or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise causes or intends to cause commission of acts of violence or religious, racial or communal disharmony or feelings of ill-will or hostility between different communities or racial or religious groups” and was found guilty would be imprisoned for a minimum of five years (International Committee of the Red Cross Database, 1). Political violence was therefore used in conjunction with the law to uphold the national narrative that discriminating against the Tamil minority was necessary to preserve public order. 

The issue of accountability with regard to the displacement of Tamil civilians arose from the fact that Sri Lanka is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, nor to the 1967 Protocol. Following the escalation of violence in July 1983, the international community led by India and the United States expressed a commitment to maintaining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka (Kodikara, 642). In September 1983, the International Commission of Jurists submitted a report to the UN Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities detailing the human rights violations that had provoked the displacement of large numbers of Tamils. The Sub-Commission’s resolution to forward the report to the UN Human Rights Commission was dismissed by the latter in February 1984 on the grounds that further consideration of the situation in Sri Lanka was not necessary (Kodikara, 643). 

Large groups of Tamils began to flee from Sri Lanka in the late 1970s – early 1980s. In August 1986, 155 Tamils arrived in Canada by boat off the coast of Newfoundland. A myth circulated that the trip had been financed by illegal monies, but an RCMP investigation found no such evidence. The refugees were provided minister’s permits granting them temporary status and entitling them to work permits (Refuge, 8). In October 2009, 76 Tamil men arrived to Canada by boat off the coast of Victoria and were placed in detention. In the span of twenty years, Canada’s reception towards refuge-seekers shifted from humanitarianism to concerns about security and criminality (Mann, 201). Following the end of the civil war, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon authorized a panel of experts to conduct an investigation into the final phase of the conflict. Acknowledging the UN’s failure to protect people at risk, the investigation led to the promulgation of the UN Human Rights Up Front Action Plan in 2012 centered on protecting civilians and preventive action. In the case of Tamil displacement, the UN response came too late. In 2015, a new government came into power and sponsored United Nations Human Rights Resolution 30/1, which promised four mechanisms to achieve transitional justice in post-civil war Sri Lanka. These included the establishment of a Truth Commission, a special court designated to assign accountability for war crimes, an Office of Missing Persons, and an Office for reparations. Little has resulted from these promises.  

Humanitarian solution/practice/activism

Differing understandings of the conflict’s causes and possible solutions caused tensions between the Sri Lankan state and international humanitarian organizations, especially during the course of the civil war. The government asserted that the LTTE constituted a domestic terrorist threat that justified the use of force while most Western humanitarian organizations viewed the conflict as a result of Tamil frustrations over the denial of their rights and opportunities by the state (Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 21). During the civil war, different humanitarian agencies worked in the predominantly LTTE-controlled areas to distribute aid and resources to displaced and fleeing Tamils. The presence of relief-assistance increased in 2007 following a surge in displacements, but the allocation of aid was highly selective in the North-Eastern provinces. For example, IDPs that emerged as a result of the 2004 Tsunami were given higher nutritional and calorie-filled food and relief packages, while those displaced as a result of military occupation and war were not offered the same provisions (Gowrinathan and Mampilly, 3). These regulations, often imposed on humanitarian agencies by the Sri Lankan state, along with other frustrations with government demands led to many INGOs leaving the country. Prior to the 2009 Genocide, the government attempted to eject the remaining organizations from their locations in the North-East through diplomatic measures, contrary to the expressed wishes of the people they were serving. 

As violent conflict and death tolls rose in 2008, the Tamil diaspora engaged in protests that demanded that the international community intervene. Diaspora members from different countries, including Canada, took part in demonstrations. Notably, Tamils in Toronto blocked the Gardiner Expressway on May 10th 2009, sparking scrutiny from the Canadian media and politicians who accused them of being ‘terrorist-sympathizers’ (Tamil Resistance). To this day, many Tamil mothers in Sri Lanka are actively protesting for their missing loved ones who were taken by government security forces. Tamils in Sri Lanka are also resisting active land grabs by the military in an effort to secure their land back from which they were displaced during the civil war.  Accountability and justice for their life of struggle and displacement is yet to be determined.


Gowrinathan, Nimmi and Mampilly, Zachariah. “Aid and Access in Sri Lanka”. Humanitarian Practice Network, no. 43 (June 2009): 2-4. 

International Committee of the Red Cross. “Prevention of Terrorism Act”. 

Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. Sri Lanka: Continuing humanitarian concerns and obstacles to durable solutions for recent and longer-term IDPs: a profile of the internal displacement situation. Geneva: Switzerland, 10 November 2009. 

Kanapathipillai, Valli. Citizenship and Statelessness in Sri Lanka: The Case of Tamil Estate Workers. New York, NY: Anthem Press, 2009.

Kodikara, Shelton. “International Dimensions of Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka: Involvement of India and Non-State Actors”. Bulletin of Peace Proposals 18, no. 4 (1987): 637-648. 

Mann, Alexandra. “Refugees Who Arrive by Boat and Canada’s Commitment to the Refugee Convention: A Discursive Analysis”. Refuge 26, no. 2 (2009): 191-206.

n.a. “An Interview on the Case of the 155 Tamil Refugees”. Refuge (1986): 8-12. 

People for Equality and Relief in Lanka (PEARL). “Tamil Resistance & Resilience in the Face of Genocide”. 

Rasaratnam, Madurika. Tamils and the Nation: India and Sri Lanka Compared. London: Hurst & Company, 2016. United Nations. Report of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka. New York, NY: United Nations, 31 March 2011.

United Nations. Report of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka. New York, NY: United Nations, 31 March 2011.

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