Causes of “Boat Migration” to Australia from Sri Lanka A Rejoinder to Emily Howie

Photo courtesy ABC

The “Special Article” on illicit migration to Australia by boats from Sri Lanka by Emily Howie (2013) in the Economic and Political Weekly (August 31) appears to be based largely on lot of conjectures. An article written by an Australian refugee advocate based on 20-30 personal interviews throughout Sri Lanka and citations from Australian (and limited Sri Lankan) newspaper articles is hardly convincing or credible.

The article appears to be based on subjective and partisan views expressed by a limited and selective number of interviewees. While the non-disclosure of the names of the interviewees is understandable, the non-explanation of the process of selection of the interviewees is inexcusable. What is the background of people in Australia and Sri Lanka (not the names) who introduced the interviewees to Emily Howie?

Emily Howie’s article lacks objectivity on several counts: as a refugee advocate in Melbourne there is vested interest of the author to arrive at the conclusion that “Stories from boat migrants depict complex political and economic motivations for their journeys, contrary to the statements by both governments that the boats are filled solely, or primarily, with “economic migrants”.” Secondly, in my opinion Australian media lacks professional and ethical rigour in comparison to British or American media and therefore cannot be a source of credible information, which is underscored by the fact that Rupert Murdoch owns most of the Australian media.

Emily Howie is correct in her assessment that the issue of illegal boat migration is complex, but not because of the “Rhetoric of Economic Migration” and “Continuing Insecurity” as she asserts. She claims that insecurity of women is one of the causes of boat migration. This author agrees with Emily Howie on the issue of insecurity of women in the North due to militarisation (See Ranasinghe 2010), but that does not necessarily result in attempts by women to migrate abroad as the results of a survey reveals. The following is the results of a survey undertaken by this author in late-2010 which is hitherto unpublished.

Results of a Survey

A rapid assessment of some of the most vulnerable youths and women-headed households was undertaken throughout the Jaffna district to ascertain their desire or not to migrate abroad and drivers of the desire to migrate. This rapid assessment was undertaken through questionnaire-based interviews with youths using a short questionnaire from September 28 to October 10 in 2010. One hundred and twenty short interviews were conducted in eight of the fifteen Divisional Secretariat (sub-district) areas largely among former combatants and supporters of the LTTE.

Respondents were identified through a purposive sampling method. It was learnt from anecdotal evidence and knowledgeable persons that the most vulnerable groups of people who might want to migrate abroad through illegal channels are former combatants and supporters/sympathisers of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). In addition, people who have kith and kin or friends abroad could be lured to migrate abroad due to the ‘demonstration effect’ (imitating the lifestyle of peers within and outside the country). The fourth category of people who are prone to illegal migration is women for marriage as a result of the gender imbalance in the Jaffna population.

As a result of the foregoing existing knowledge we purposefully targeted the first two categories noted above (ex-combatants and supporters of the LTTE) for interviewing for this rapid assessment. Further, women-headed households were also a target group for interviewing. Thus, under the overall target category of young (<40 years old) IDP returnees, bulk of the respondents were ex-combatants, Tiger supporters, or women-headed households.

It was found that male youths are more likely to migrate abroad than female youths. Further, the desire to migrate diminishes with ageing of youths; i.e. relatively younger youths have a greater desire to migrate abroad than relatively older youths. Moreover, youths with relatively lower educational attainment have a higher propensity to migrate abroad. Furthermore, unmarried youths are more likely to migrate abroad than married youths. The overwhelming factors driving migration abroad are poor living conditions (74% of the interviewees) and lack of opportunities in Sri Lanka (41% of the interviewees). Thus, economic desolation is the fundamental cause for migration abroad even among ex-combatants. Insecurity is a minor factor driving migration abroad (only 18% of the interviewees cited this reason).

Of course this author agrees with the finding and argument of Emily Howie that economic desolation is partly caused by complex politico military factors such as legal and illegal appropriation of private lands by the military in the pretext of High Security Zones and national security and significant number of military-run farms and enterprises in the former conflicted-affected areas depriving livelihoods of local population. (See Sarvananthan 2011) What national security purpose does the appropriation of private lands to do farming, fishing, and build and operate small-scale tourist hotels by the Sri Lanka Army and Navy serve?

Further, the results of our rapid assessment reveal that the principal motive behind migration (both legal and illegal) is poverty (denoted by “family circumstances”), lack of (livelihood) opportunities, or lower income among the people who are most susceptible to migration abroad. Even the former combatants and sympathisers/supporters of the LTTE (who were the bulk of the respondents to the rapid assessment) did not adduce insecurity as the reason for their intention to migrate abroad. Hence, it is evident that bulk of the refugees fleeing Sri Lanka is economic migrants masquerading as asylum seekers.

The foregoing results tally with a survey of youths undertaken in the latter half of 2009 by a team led by Prof. Siri Hettige of the University of Colombo throughout the country (including the conflict-affected regions) (unpublished) which revealed that about 50% of the youths (18-24 years old) in Sri Lanka wanted to go abroad (across all ethnicities). This shows that there is a crisis of confidence on the country among the youths.

It is true, as Emily Howie contends, that there is serious mal-governance in Sri Lanka that triggers illegal boat migration by youths of all ethnicities (including from the majority Sinhalese community) to Australia. (See Ranasinghe 2010) But, why is Australia the choice of would be illegal migrants? One important factor, as Emily Howie describes, is the relatively lower cost involved.

There is another important factor for the choice of Australia by would be migrants (especially Tamils). Australia is one of the few Western countries which have not legally banned the LTTE or its humanitarian arm Tamils’ Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO) to date. Besides, this author is aware that the TRO is openly operating in Melbourne and other cities of Australia with bank accounts, fund raising, and other activities even nearly five years after the end of the civil war. Therefore, former members of the LTTE and its supporters believe that they have relatively better chance of being accepted as refugees in Australia than in most other countries if they claim to be associated with the LTTE one way or the other.

The Australian law enforcement agencies have failed to take necessary action even when they are aware of refugee claimants who may have committed war crimes or crimes against humanity during the course of the civil war in Sri Lanka that has provided a further impetus for some to choose Australia as their preferred country of settlement. Daniel Flitton (2013) has highlighted one such case in The Age, a national newspaper in Australia. The fact that part of the payment for the ocean journey by illegal boat migrants could be paid on arrival in Australia, as noted by Emily Howie and known to this author as well, is a proof that many Australian citizens (primarily, but not exclusively, of Sri Lankan origin) are involved in this illegal trade.

Therefore, I would argue that mal-governance is not only in the Sri Lankan end as Emily Howie contends, but in the Australian end as well in the form of slack law enforcement. The pervasive culture of impunity that prevails in Sri Lanka seems to be in Australia and United Kingdom as well, albeit at a minor scale. I would humbly encourage Emily Howie to investigate/research the pull-factor/s of illicit boat migration to Australia from Sri Lanka at her end in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, etc, which would provide balanced and objective outcome/s to her research into this sensitive issue in both the countries.

Actors in Human Smuggling from Sri Lanka

There are number of actors involved in human smuggling from Sri Lanka including former LTTE cadres and sympathisers (in Sri Lanka as well as abroad including in India), pro-government Tamil militias, personnel of the armed forces (especially Army and Navy personnel), fringe ultra nationalist political parties from Southern Sri Lanka, certain Tamil office-bearers of the key political party in the ruling coalition government (Sri Lanka Freedom Party – SLFP), some members of the principal Tamil nationalist political party in the Eastern and Northern Provinces (the Tamil National Alliance – TNA), sympathisers of the cause of Tamil Eelam in Tamilnadu State in India, and of course the Tamil Diaspora in various countries.

For example, the father of a key current ruling party (SLFP) office-bearer in the North used to be a people smuggler under the regime of President Premadasa (1989-1993) who may be back in business. Both the father and son have returned to Sri Lanka from the United Kingdom (after a long time of self-imposed exile) after the end of the civil war. It is rumoured that this particular SLFP office-bearer is a buddy of one of the sons of President Rajapaksa. A key local government member of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in the Jaffna district was the organiser of a boat to Australia early this year from a coastal town which was intercepted by the Sri Lanka Navy. This local government member was interviewed by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) but was not charged presumably because of involvement of personnel from the armed forces in the aborted people smuggling.

There is also anecdotal evidence from the North and East that fringe ultra nationalist political parties from the South (in collusion with personnel of the armed forces) are involved in smuggling of Tamils abroad in order to dilute the numerical dominance of the Tamil population in the Eastern and Northern Provinces. Besides, France has emerged as the largest recipient of Sri Lankan refugees in Europe in the aftermath of the civil war reportedly because of the abuse of its special relationship with Puthuchery (a Union Territory in Southern India formerly known as Pondichery, which used to be a French dominion).

Hence, the organisers of illicit boat migration are multi-ethnic/party/cultural. At least on the issue of illicit boat migration (especially to Australia) there appears to be ethnic, political, and cultural collaboration in Sri Lanka, albeit dubious. Both the Sinhala ultra nationalists in Sri Lanka and Tamil ultra nationalists abroad appear to be two sides of the same coin on the issue of illicit migration; push-factor and pull-factor respectively. To reiterate, mal governance, which is certainly a contributory factor to illegal boat migration, is both in Sri Lanka as well as in Australia (though at a minor scale in the latter) that needs to be further probed and exposed for a deeper understanding of the complexity of the issue.


Flitton, Daniel, (2013), “Tamil refugee was child soldier trainer”, The Age, September 6, 2013.

Howie, Emily, (2013), “Sri Lankan Boat Migration to Australia: Motivations and Dilemmas”, Economic and Political weekly, Special Article, Vol.48. No.35, August 31, 2013, pp97-104.

Ranasinghe, Sergie De Silva, (2010), ‘Bitterness towards the LTTE has not translated into goodwill towards the Government’, The Sunday Leader, November 14.

Sarvananthan, Muttukrishna, (2011), “Sri Lanka: Putting Entrepreneurship at the Heart of Economic Revival in the North, East, and Beyond”, Contemporary South Asia, Vol.19 No.2, June, pp205-213.


Muttukrishna Sarvananthan (Ph.D. Wales) is the Principal Researcher of the Point Pedro Institute of Development ( in Northern Sri Lanka and was an Endeavour Research Fellow at Monash University (Melbourne, Australia) during 2011-2012. He can be contacted at