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Going and coming: Sinhalese asylums seekers in Australia

By James Stewart - posted Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Knowledgeable people would probably assume, with some confidence, that the majority of asylum seekers coming from Sri Lanka to Australia would be Tamils. The Tamil people comprise only 11% of the population while the Sinhalese vastly outnumber them, making up a whopping 75% of the total people in Sri Lanka. Their minority status unfortunately burdens them with a number of disadvantages, least of all the fact that Tamils are often mistreated by the Sinhalese majority. Given this marginalisation, what is surprising is the fact that many of the recent asylum seekers to Australia are Sinhalese. Why this is so helps reveal some interesting features of Sinhalese culture, but it also calls into question the Australian government's intention in stemming the flow of asylum seekers.

Tamil mistreatment varies wildly, and of course some Tamils have been able to occupy positions of considerable power. For the most part, however, Sri Lankan Tamils occupy a marginal social status and have fewer opportunities than their Sinhalese counterparts. The rivalry between the Sinhalese and the Tamils stems originally from hundreds of years of conflict brought on by Tamil migration from India. At one point in Sri Lankan history the Tamils were the dominant power on the island. Now, it is the Sinhalese who are in charge and this has sometimes led to Tamil mistreatment either in an extreme form – such as the alleged mass slaughter of Tamils at the end of the civil war – to more subtle forms of oppression. These more subtle forms can involve, for example, intimidation campaigns against Tamil activists and newspapers or the allegation that the Sri Lankan government have taken advantage of the civil war to illegally grab Tamil land in the North. These are just a few reported cases of Tamil mistreatment by the Sinhalese majority. Indeed, there is a common saying amongst the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka that goes demala demalamayi or "a Tamil is a Tamil." In other words, when a Tamil behaves inappropriately it can hardly be avoided – it is a defect of the race. This sort of racism is an unfortunate stain on the otherwise idyllic island of Sri Lanka.

For these reasons, we might expect Tamils to flee Sri Lanka for a better life overseas in countries like Australia – and, of course, they do. But what is most surprising is the fact that many of the Sri Lankan asylum seekers to Australia are not ethnic Tamils, but are actually Sinhalese. The Sinhalese are not only the dominant ethnic group in Sri Lanka, they also enjoy the lion's share of the wealth of Sri Lanka, and otherwise dominate every facet of Sri Lankan society. How is it that the dominant ethnic group of Sri Lanka, the group that is seemingly least in need of asylum, are nonetheless the primary applicants for asylum in Australia?


There are two reasons for this, I think: First, there is a cultural ethos of travel amongst the Sinhalese majority. Second, and in spite of the fact that the Sinhalese dominate Sri Lankan society, there are nonetheless a poor Sinhalese underclass who wish to travel and for whom conventional immigration is not an option.

Amanda Hodge argues that a majority of the Sinhalese that get on boats to come to Australia are Catholic Sinhalese. The Catholic Sinhalese live mainly along the coast of Southern Sri Lanka and their primary occupation is fishing. Therefore, as a people familiar with the sea, they are also attracted to the possibility of finding a better life on distant shores. They are, Hodge argues, a seafaring people. This is a fair point, but I do not believe that this ethos of travelling is restricted only to the Catholic Sinhalese. Similarly, I am not convinced that it is only Catholic Sinhalese that want to take advantage of the people smuggling trade and get on a rickety boat bound for Australia. The impulse to leave Sri Lanka for better pastures is felt not just by the Catholics, but also by the entire Sinhalese majority. It is a quality of the Sinhalese people as such, and is not an attribute of any one religious or occupational group. To understand better where this impulse to travel stems from it is useful to consider the phrase gihila ennam.

Gehila ennam means, "to go and return." It is a parting phrase similar to our "see you later." It is a common idiom used on a daily basis throughout Sinhalese communities. But it is more than just a simple idiom, it is also a part of the cultural ethos of the Sinhalese. When a guest leaves their host's home they will say, gehila ennam. When they this they are saying, "I will go now, but I will come back." It is a promise that they will return, and this is significant socially because it signals the importance of their host. It signals that their relationship is not just that of a fleeting acquaintance, but is rather a substantial partnership. It signals that visiting their friend or relative is important to them; that they matter. The phrase gehila ennam therefore, in one sense, cements social relations in Sri Lanka. Coming to someone's house is an important event, more important – and more common – than it is in Australia. People are expected to bring gifts when they visit someone's house, and in return the host is obligated to provide tea and refreshments. Yet in order to come back one also has to go and this element of going is as important as when one arrives.

For the purposes of understanding Sinhalese emigration, it is actually more significant because, at a global level, this concept of coming and going is a relation that binds Sinhalese all over the world. So although the Sinhalese people may be split up with communities existing in every corner of the globe, the Sinhalese people are also inextricably bound together. They are bound in unity by the island of Sri Lanka, which is a place that many feel they can always return to. Sinhalese habitually leave Sri Lanka, but they leave in part so that they can one day return. This is the concept of gehila ennam at a macro level.

This impulse to leave and return lies at the heart of Sinhalese emigration. During the civil war, many Sinhalese families departed Sri Lanka for a new life in foreign lands. Many of these families arrived in Australia using more traditional routes of immigration and the sons and daughters of these first generation immigrants now participate in Australian society as doctors, lawyers, accountants and so on. Yet it is the privileged middle and upper class of Sinhalese society that were able to make the move to Australia in this conventional fashion. To be able to make a new life in Australia it was necessary to be of the right economic class. Nonetheless, this does not stop many poorer Sinhalese making the big move of leaving Sri Lanka in order to find new opportunities. Many of these less well-endowed Sinhalese end up working as house maids in Middle Eastern countries. Those employed in such menial jobs are often not well treated by their employers. There was considerable outrage when a young female cleaner named Rizana Nafeek was executed in Saudi Arabia after being found guilty of homicide, though the police investigation has already been called into question. In spite of these risks, many poorer Sinhalese flock to the Middle East so that they can send as much money home in order to support their families in Sri Lanka.

This drive to leave the country, to make something of oneself overseas, is an impulse shared not only by the middle and upper class Sinhalese, it is a desire maintained also by those without many resources. To leave Sri Lanka, and to come back in glory, is a dream of many Sinhalese. This is in accordance with the gehila ennam ethos. It is widely believed that developed countries like Australia are economic heavens and that merely stepping foot in the country will confer great wealth. One elderly Sinhalese lady who I knew was astonished to learn that there were poor white people in Australia and that menial tasks such as rubbish collecting was still conducted by human beings. She believed that Australians employed robots for such tasks. There is therefore a pervasive myth, in Sri Lanka, that the West is a place in which one is granted great riches almost as a matter of course. This myth is propagated by many expat Sinhalese who, upon their return to Sri Lanka, seem to flaunt great wealth. This is so even in cases where expat Sinhalese are employed in negligible jobs that pay very little. The concept that there is a poor underclass in the West is not well understood by many in Sri Lanka. This myth of the prosperity of the West further bolsters the ethos of gehila ennam. One goes, but only to return in glory.


Captivated by this, many Sinhalese seek a new life overseas. Those that cannot afford it, however, seek new avenues in order to realise their goal. This is where people smuggling becomes significant. Poorer Sinhalese, Sinhalese that who cannot afford a visa, let alone a plane ticket, seek less scrupulous methods of realising their dream. Unlike the traditional route of gaining a visa and a plane ticket, the people smuggling route does not depend upon legitimate systems of trade and so it is a method that is affordable for many poor Sinhalese. People smuggling short circuits the traditional route by which people normally engage in travel, a route that effectively keeps out unwanted peoples. Nonetheless, it is also a route that keeps the aspirations and dreams of some alive, and at the same time cynically preys upon those aspirations. People smuggling is nasty business, but for some it is their only hope.

The Sinhalese asylum seekers are therefore people who want a better life but do not have the means to go about achieving that through conventional methods. It can be argued that this, in part, is what lies at the heart of Australian anger over asylum seekers. It is not merely a matter of xenophobia, it is also a matter of classism. Some Australians cannot tolerate the fact that asylum seekers have found alternative routes into Australia. It is important to observe that the Australian government does not object to wealthy Sinhalese coming to Australia to study medicine or law. In fact, the government is very happy for them to invest large amounts of money in Australia especially through inflated international student fees. What the Australian government does mind is poor Sinhalese coming to Australia who have nothing to contribute. By 'nothing to contribute' this effectively means 'no money to invest.' This is evident simply by virtue of the fact that so-called economic migrants, i.e. those migrants who migrate due to poverty, are not considered legitimate asylum seekers according to Australian policy.

Indeed, the immigration system in Australia is set up specifically so that poor people cannot easily receive permanent residency visas regardless of their individual character. I recall when I was applying for my permanent residency I was struck by the obtuseness of the application documentation, not to mention its pricieness. The PR application cost around $3000. Furthermore, in order to make sense of the legal minutiae and to expedite our application, we hired a lawyer which cost us an additional $4000. We were, in fact, directed to hire a lawyer at the outset by DIAC staff. I imagine this advice is given to anyone, regardless of whether they can afford it.

The point of this is simply to illustrate that this mechanism is not just a way for the government to earn revenue, it is also a way of keeping undesirables out, that is, those who can't afford to stay. This is simply a form of classism, and it is evident in the attitudes some Australians – and certainly the Australian government - has towards asylum seekers. Asylum seekers short circuit the immigration system by refusing to comply with traditional immigration protocols, protocols designed specifically to keep them out simply because of their negligible economic status. As for the Sinhalese that participate in this system, they are precisely from a poorer background. Yet, in keeping with the aspirations of the gehila ennam ethos, they aim to have a better life overseas. For their troubles, they are banished to detention centres or are otherwise deported back to Sri Lanka to fates unknown.

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About the Author

James Stewart is a researcher at the University of Tasmania who researches Sinhalese Buddhism and is a frequent visitor to Sri Lanka.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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