The resettlement journeys of Tamil refugees.

The Canadian Coast Guard meeting MV Sun Sea, a refugee ship holding 380 Tamils fleeing civil war. Image retrieved from:

Political Stakes for the Sri Lankan state

During the civil war, the Sri Lankan state was able to neutralise the potential political cost of producing refuge-seekers by labeling Tamil political activity as terrorism. The state began describing Tamil militancy as terrorism in the early 1970s (Nadarajah & Sriskandarajah, 89). By the 1979 PTA, terrorism had become “conflated… with the Tamil political project in Sri Lankan political discourse,” and quickly with Tamil ethnicity itself (Nadarajah & Sriskandarajah, 89, 91). A Tamil “threat” provided a scapegoat during the economic hardships of the late 1970s and early 1980s and mobilised Sinhalese support for the regime (Nadarajah & Sriskandarajah, 91). 

There seems to be little official state discussion of refuge-seekers in the early years of the conflict, potentially because of state-censored media. The displacement of Tamils also benefited state projects. Mass Tamil displacement facilitated the state-organised Sinhalese settlement of historically Tamil-majority land, which began in 1949 (Pieris, 208). In early 1983, before the outbreak of the civil war, the Sri Lankan President stated that he was “not worried about the opinion of the Tamil people… now we cannot think of them, not about their lives or their opinion… Really if I starve the Tamils out, the Sinhala people will be happy” (Nadarajah & Sriskandarajah, 92). Refuge-seekers posed little domestic political threat to the state – the state was using the language of genocide, and thus it was the presence of Tamil peoples that was perceived as the threat, not their leaving (or removal). 

During the 1980s, though there were multiple reports of human rights abuses and the state frequently came under question from multiple aid-providing countries, there was an equivalent amount of international “rallying around” the state, which continued to receive significant financial support. Western politicians began using the term “terrorism” in the 1980s to refer to Tamil militancy, which was then incorporated into foreign state laws by a string of countries designating the LTTE a terrorist organisation in the 1990s and early 2000s (Nadarajah & Sriskandarajah, 90-91, 95). This provided legitimacy to the Sri Lankan state by suggesting that their persecution of Tamils was potentially justified (Nadarajah & Sriskandarajah, 87). The association of Tamil refuge-seekers with terrorism was additionally important to the state because it impacted LTTE funding. Members of the Tamil diaspora were an important source of funds for the LTTE, and the international perception of the LTTE as a terrorist organization meant that host country governments took measures to curtail this funding (See Suresh v. Canada for an example; Nadarajah & Sriskandarajah, 93).

The state still perceives the Tamil minority as a threat to national security in post-war Sri Lanka. However, it is now their leaving rather than their presence that is the issue. Increasing numbers of refuge-seekers post-war signal ongoing internal problems: both an inability to control border crossings and continued repression and state violence (Cooray, 74, 84). Sri Lanka has become increasingly dependent on foreign aid, which means that to a certain extent they must appear to follow international law (Pieris 208; de Silva Wijeyeratne, 1). The Department of Immigration Sri Lanka thus maintained that the vast majority of asylum seekers were leaving for economic reasons, not fleeing human rights abuses (Cooray 78). 

Settlement Options/Outcomes 

Due to their complex settlement journeys, Tamil diasporas are incredibly diverse and spread out all over the world. When they first arrived as asylum-seekers in host countries, most were met with hostility and pushback. Those who remain without citizenship in host states continue to face the prospect of forced repatriation to Sri Lanka, where they would be subject to violence and persecution. One can only begin to understand various settlement options available to Tamil refuge-seekers within this context of fear and uncertainty. While some were planning on returning to the island once the conflict was over, most refuge-seekers who left after 1983 hoped to build permanent lives in their host states and never return to Sri Lanka again. 

Settlement outcomes were influenced by certain class and caste dynamics, as evident in how large groups of educated, upper-class Tamils arrived in European countries as economic migrants long before violent conflict erupted. Sri Lanka’s proximity to the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu allowed lower class Tamils to seek refuge there, as they chartered dangerous routes in the sea using fishing boats from their coastal villages (Manohari, 273). Tamil refugees from 1980s onwards chose to embark on boats as their primary means of transportation, since it was usually the only option available to leave the island. In Tamil Nadu, refugees were detained in camps designed to control militant rebels and were only recently given the right to settle in India.

Following 1983, asylum-seekers were forced to migrate as far as Europe, Canada, and Australia, in attempts to physically distance themselves from the conflict and have a chance at establishing a permanent, settled life. Tamils who went to England were met with better circumstances than those who migrated to other Western European countries, due to the influence of already established Tamil communities (Manohari, 282). The English language proved advantageous to them for employment, unlike other European countries where Tamils needed to learn foreign languages such as French and German. The employment restrictions for asylum-seekers in the UK were relatively lenient, and politicians were not keen on repatriating Tamils (Manohari, 291). However in countries like Germany and France, Tamils faced increased hostility and racism from the public, media, and government. 

In the late 1980s, the governments of France, Switzerland, Holland and West Germany, overwhelmed by the number of Tamil refugee claimants, sought mechanisms to remove Tamils. At first, these governments attempted to establish refugee camps in Sri Lanka to return Tamils to, which would be financed and controlled by the European countries (Ramesh, The Guardian). When multiple international organizations recognized that these actions would stand in direct violation of the United Nations charter and their commitment to the principle of non-refoulement, representatives began to consider alternative solutions (Cooray, 82). This included establishing refugee camps in countries of the global South, as well as denying Tamil asylum claimants the right to work in an effort to force them to leave (Manohari, 292). Many Tamils were also sent back to Sri Lanka then subsequently abducted and tortured by state forces (Amnesty International). For these reasons, many Tamil refugees in European host states chose to board planes and boats and cross the Atlantic Ocean to reach either Canada or the United States. Refugees fled to Canada in the late 1980s because of the possibility that they would be able to work legally while their claims for refugee states, permanent residence and citizenship were pending. 

Representation of Refuge Seekers 

The early war on terror-style discourse advanced by the Sri Lankan state strengthened the culture of impunity against the Tamil population created by the anti-Tamil pogroms of 1958, 1965 and 1971 (Parasam, 907). The government widely publicized news of the LTTE’s attack on Sinhalese soldiers during the Black July events of 1983, while censoring reports of the military’s retaliation on Tamil civilians (Parasam, 908). During the civil war – especially under the Kumaratunga administration from 1994 to 2005 – the international press was denied entry to war zones and LTTE controlled areas (Rasaratnam, 204). Consequently, news agencies like Reuters and the Associated Press were forced to operate out of the capital of Colombo. The government also monopolized the local media by imposing formal censorship to the effect that all war-related coverage was to be submitted to the military for approval prior to broadcasting (Rasaratnam, 204).

         The portrayal of Tamil refugees by the international media was laden with negative language. The framing of Tamil refugees in terms of both “causing problems” and “having problems” was shaped by growing concerns of global terrorism in the 1980s, criminality in the 1990s and by the war on terror in the 2000s (van Dijk, 169). For instance, in 1985 Dutch media outlets characterized the Tamil refugees as economic migrants who came to Europe to escape poverty and reap the benefits of the welfare state, using terminology like ‘invasion’, ‘fraud’ and ‘exploitation’ to fuel a narrative of panic. Stories about Tamil refugees contained little to no background about the political situation in Sri Lanka. Emphasis was placed instead on Tamil violence against the state. The trend of depicting the Tamil refugee as a ‘terrorist-other’ was later emulated by the United Kingdom, France and Germany (van Dijk, 183).

         The Canadian media echoed many of these sentiments. The sense of fear heightened following the Canadian government’s denunciation of the LTTE as a terrorist organization in 2006. Sailaja Krishnamurti contrasts Canada’s reputation as a “safe haven, peacekeeper and supporter of human rights” with its position as itself requiring protection from illegal migrants deemed to be a threat to the “Canadian way of life” with reference to the MV Sun Sea, a boat carrying 492 Tamil refugees that arrived on the coast of B.C. in August 2010 (139). Three themes dominated media coverage of the Sun Sea: firstly, Sun Sea passengers were described as queue-jumpers; secondly, the refuge seekers were assumed to be affiliated with the LTTE; and, thirdly, pregnant passengers were seen as a burden on public services (Krishnamurti, 140). Debates surrounding the illegitimacy of the Tamil refugees quickly flooded comments sections of newspapers such as the National Post and the Globe and Mail, largely reaffirming and further propagating the view of Tamil refugees as national security threats. For example, an editorial published in the National Post in May 2009 stated: “In the minds of most of the public, Tamils are all Tigers”, understood as “Tamils are [all] terrorists” (Boyd, 1). Though a bold claim, this statement was in line with the Harper government’s allegations against the LTTE. 

Representation – portrayals from a refugees’ perspective

Tamil refugees have adapted various outlets to portray their struggle through the decades, ranging from news media to artistic performances. They were tied to the history of the conflict that they had barely escaped but were also attempting to reconcile with as they built their new lives in a new host country. Tamil-Canadian refugees were instrumental in setting up numerous political organizations that advocated for the rights of Tamils in Canada and those back in Sri Lanka, including the World Tamil Movement, multiple Tamil Youth Organizations, and the Tamil Canadian Congress. Over the course of the civil war, these organizations along with multiple Tamil-run news outlets voiced their concern over the increasing number of human rights violations in Sri Lanka. As the Mullivaikal Genocide was taking place, refugee-run organizations across the world mobilized to demand that their respective governments take action to stop the killing of innocent Tamil civilians. Since mainstream media outlets were not covering the extent of the Sri Lankan civil war, former Tamil refugees relied on long email chains and selective websites to spread information to diasporas and those in the homeland. Former refugee and British Tamil Maathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam (stage name M.I.A) is a notable artist who actively speaks out, in public and through her work, against the atrocities committed by the Sri Lankan state to Tamil people. Recent examples of refugee representation can be seen in the various ways the children of refugees use social media (such as Twitter and Instagram) to tell the stories of their parents’ journey and advocate for those who remain resilient in Sri Lanka. Some examples of activists who document refugee stories can be found below:


Amnesty International, “Torture in Sri Lanka – ‘Many times I would lose consciousness,’” 26 June 2013,

Boyd, Ryan. “Boat People and Terrorists: The media-driven moral panic and double consciousness of the Tamil diaspora in Canada”, Master’s thesis, Carleton University, 2012. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, MR93564. 

Cooray, Devoushi. “Asylum seekers and host country impacts: a case study of Sri Lanka,” Migration and Development, 3:1, 2014, 73-94. DOI: 10.1080/21632324.2014.893654.

De Silva Wijeyeratne, Roshan. Nation, Constitutionalism and Buddhism in Sri Lanka. New York: Routledge, 2014, 250 p. 

Krishnamurti, Sailaja. “Queue-jumpers, terrorists, breeders: representations of Tamil migrants in Canadian popular media”, South Asian Diaspora, Vol. 5, No. 1, 2013, 139-157, DOI: 10.1080/19438192.2013.722386

Manohari, Velamati. “Sri Lankan Tamil Migration and Settlement: Time for Reconsideration”, India Quarterly, Vol. 65, No. 3, July-September 2009, 271-294,

N.A. “An Interview on the Case of 155 Tamil Refugees” Refuge: Canada’s Periodical on Refugees, 1986 8-9,

Nadarajah, Suthaharan and Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah. “Liberation Struggle or Terrorism? The Politics of Naming the LTTE,” Third World Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 1, 2005, 87-100,

Parasam, Ajay. “Erasing Tamil Eelam: De/Re Territorialisation in the Global War on Terror”, Geopolitics, Vol. 17, No. 4, 2012, 903-925. DOI: 10.1080/14650045.2012.654531 

Pieris, Anoma. Sovereignty, Space and Civil War in Sri Lanka: Porous Nation. London: Routledge, 2018, 254 p.

Rasaratnam, Madurika. Tamils and the Nation: India and Sri Lanka Compared. London: C. Hurst & Co, 1998, 353 p. 

Ramesh, Randeep. “Sri Lanka civil war refugees to be housed in ‘welfare villages’”, The Guardian, February 12 2009, Dijk, Teun. “Semantics of Press Panic: The Tamil ‘Invasion’”, European Journal of Communication, Vol. 3, No.2, 1988, 167-187,

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