In Defence of Diaspora: Sri Lanka's invisible victims

There's typically a sense that once people have fled their country they no longer deserve a full stake in its future. Perhaps the assumption is exiles have assimilated elsewhere, their children no longer speak the language or understand the nuances of the culture. Sometimes there's a degree of envy - members of a diaspora are considered financially better off abroad. There's the unspoken feeling that they abandoned their country - 'they didn't stay and suffer like the rest of us". Somehow it's assumed they've lost the right to a voice.

Then there's diaspora politics. It's easy to make fun of - governments in exile, tiny unelected parties that fragment endlessly, and a strong dose of nostalgia that pervades everything. Diasporas are typically courted for their technical expertise and investment; their political views only welcome when they conveniently reinforce or fund interest groups inside the country.

Million Tamils

It's nonsense of course to talk about a diaspora as a coherent entity. It's made up of every shade of political view, different generations, different levels of education and class, and most of all very different experiences of suffering and exile.

The Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora numbers some million people worldwide. Some settled abroad decades ago; others fled only in recent months. In the current period of transition in the country there's much talk of victims' rights, though arguably little to realise them yet. The unthinking assumption is that the "victims" are those Tamils eking out a living in the former war zone, searching for loved ones, as well of course as the Sinhalese and Muslims who suffered. It's the victims inside the country whose fate is considered the litmus test for any future reconciliation effort.

But what about those who've fled abroad, those who've been driven out after experiencing unspeakable crimes. I call them the invisibles. They're anonymous faces in petrol stations or supermarkets in their new countries. Nobody knows their stories or worries about reconciling with them or offering them reparations. They pass unseen.

Threat of deportation

They're the ones who've been hung upside down and beaten on the soles of their feet so for the rest of their lives when they tread the pavements of London or Zurich the pain will remind them of their torturer. They will never undress without being conscious of the cigarette burn marks emblazoned on their private parts - some will never wear clothes that show their legs or backs now hideously deformed by burn scars from branding with hot metal rods. Many hide their suffering because of the shame of repeated sexual abuse and the gnawing fear that their families back home could be targeted. Toe nails grow back, pieces of shrapnel can be removed in surgery, teeth can be repaired but the mental trauma and physical pain will never completely go away. Torture is for life.

The idea that these people have a cushy life abroad is obscene. Many are detained by immigration authorities on arrival in Europe or Australia and re-traumatised. Faced with deportation they try to kill themselves. They're put on suicide watch, which means a guard will walk into their room throughout the night to check on them. Several have described waking and thinking they're back in Sri Lanka in the torture cell. Even when free, they must wait years in limbo to secure a decision on their asylum. People who've been to hell and back, sleep on the floors of other people's apartments, work as house-maids, look after other's people's children while longing for their own. In short they have to hang on for dear life just to survive - sanctuary isn't instant or guaranteed. And that's in Europe. In India or South East Asia it's infinitely worse. At any moment they can be rounded up by the authorities and sent back to Sri Lanka. They exist in the shadows, unable to access even medical help for horrifying injuries. Here being invisible is a matter of survival.

Haunted memories

Nobody knows how many Sri Lankan Tamil war survivors have fled the island since the end of the fighting in 2009 for Europe, Australia, Malaysia, Thailand and India. Why do they currently have no voice in the future of their country? Cynics might say it suits the government and the international community to marginalise these people because many - though not all -were members of the Tamil Tigers - a group proscribed under terrorism legislation around the world. But surely these victims are just as bit entitled to a stake in their island's future as the citizens who stayed put in the country. Survivors of the last phase of the civil war repeatedly say they their bodies are in England or Switzerland but their minds in Sri Lanka. They constantly scour the Internet for news of who is alive and who is dead, still haunted by recent events. These are not people who've settled by choice abroad. They should not be rendered invisible.

The current rush by human rights and development agencies to secure a presence inside Sri Lanka presupposes all the victims are physically there. The special rapporteur on transitional justice visited Sri Lanka earlier this year and called for any future accountability process to have the participation and trust of the victims. Even he forgot hundreds of recent survivors of the very worst abuses who are now abroad against their will.

© Huffington Post

The former BBC Correspondent in Sri Lanka, Frances Harrison is the author of Still Counting the Dead: Survivors of Sri Lanka's Hidden War, published by Portobello Books (UK), House of Anansi (Canada) and Penguin ( India).


Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

  • JDS is the Sri Lankan partner organization of international media rights group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The launching of this website was made possible by the EU’s European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), of which Reporters Without Borders is a beneficiary.