By Sachini Weerawardena
"There is no reason why anybody should leave Sri Lanka out of any fear. They have the freedom to live anywhere" - Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.
Much has been written about Asylum seekers and the unsafe conditions in which they attempt to cross over to foreign lands at great personal risk. According to Article 1 of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, a refugee is a person who "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…" and an asylum seeker is a person waiting on his or her application to be recognized as a refugee.
[Horror journey ... Sri Lankan asylum seekers on the water police boat at Merak / Pic: Gita Anggun Athika - courtesy: The Daily Telegraph]
History is full of instances in the world when people have been forced to seek refuge. The act of granting asylum by a nation state to a foreign national should be considered one of the greatest acts of kindness humanity has bestowed upon each other. It has offered protection and hope to those survivors who ultimately lived to tell their horrific stories to the world.
Daily Mirror recently carried a story where the Defence Secretary was quoted saying, “The Australian government has to be very strict on anybody to whom they are considering granting asylum. If they just stopped giving asylum, it would be much easier to stop this process." The article went on to state that the military had successfully restricted such boats from leaving Sri Lankan shores. People instead travel to other countries and attempt to seek asylum from there. So it would seem that some Sri Lankans are desperately trying to get out.
The question is however, why these governments remain “sympathetic to asylum seekers of Sri Lankan origin and whether the measures being taken to “stop this process” are addressing the right issues. Unfortunately it seems we have come to confuse the reasons as to why people leave and attempt to group asylum seekers together with those who leave voluntarily.
The system always has to deal with those who will seek to take advantage of it. Does that mean the process of granting asylum should stop? The fact so many are granted asylum has to mean something. However, the significance of the asylum seeker should not be ridiculed or confused with others who simply seek greener pastures.
Those who have the means and connections secure residence by way of education or employment. Some choose to return, others prefer to stay. But it is important to realize that people can and do have the freedom to choose. Whether those reasons are out of fear or circumstance or simply because they want a better life is between the individual and the immigration officials.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) categorizes an Economic Migrant as a person who “makes a conscious choice to leave their country of origin and can return there without a problem.” It would seem most Sri Lankans would fall in to this category if they are indeed attempting to find better economic conditions. But the case of the asylum seeker is real and we should not make the mistake of confusing the two.
We simply cannot have it both ways.
It will take a while before Sri Lanka recovers from the scars of a decade long war. Should the people have to watch their lives go by and wait for generations after them to live comfortable lives? With no hope of job training and no real educational qualifications, what can Sri Lanka offer to them than what is more attractive compared to living in a developed nation?
Ultimately, those who are successful in crossing over to developed nations will live better lives than they would have otherwise. Their children will have hope and a shot at life with no remnants of prejudice and hate. In time we can only hope Sri Lanka ceases to be a destination from where people must flee and all Sri Lankans can feel safe.
Perhaps the issue of granting asylum should be left to the immigration officials of those respective countries. Let them figure out the implications or the consequences. It cannot be easy, to wish to leave one’s homeland. It is even worse when an individual is forced to flee as a refugee out of fear for their lives. Simply because people go in search of greener pastures does not mean that the asylum seeker flees for the same reason. The fact that so many do should mean that there is still much work to be done from within Sri Lanka.