Over the past year Australia has seen an increase in people seeking asylum by boat. A large number of these asylum seekers have come from Sri Lanka and with the Oceanic Viking incident creating even more controversy and attention, a lot of people are asking...
Why don't they just go to India?
Fair question. India is obviously a lot closer, (about 100km instead of about 9000km), there is already a large Tamil population there, and the Indian Government is tolerant (to a degree) of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees.
Sri Lanka’s representative to the UN, Palitha Kohona, has even suggested that not trying to get to India, calls into question whether they are genuine refugees or just economic migrants.
However, there are a lot of really good reasons why Sri Lankan Tamils choose to take a lengthier and more expensive route to Europe, Canada or Australia. And these reasons have nothing to do with economics.
Reason 1: The perilous journey
In order to get to India the Sri Lankan Tamils face an extremely dangerous journey. They faced danger from both the Sri Lankan Armed Forces and the remnant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) while they trek through the forest to get to the boat to take them to India. Then, they face danger from the Sri Lankan Navy while they cross the Palk Strait, the small strip of water that divides the two countries.
Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research and a respected commentator on Sri Lanka, said it was now "far more dangerous to try to reach India than Southeast Asia."
The Sri Lankan navy has been intercepting boats trying to cross the Palk Strait to India. In the name of fighting remnant Tamil Tigers, they attack boats of refugees; they have arrested people and sunk boats.
That's the reason why you're getting boatpeople through Indonesia and other points; otherwise these guys would all be coming to India.
Reason 2: Treatment of Sri Lankan Tamils in India
It is estimated that there are anywhere from 100,000 to over 160,000 Sri Lankan Tamils living in between 115 and 130 refugee camps in varying districts of the Tamil Nadu state of India.
The state government of Tamil Nadu gives registered adult Sri Lankan refugees food subsidies and 800 rupees (about $16) a month.
Although it is positive that the Indian Government gives the refugees some support and doesn’t appear to return them to Sri Lanka, it is clear that India is unwilling to offer Sri Lankan refugees permanent status or a long-term durable solution. Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka have no rights in India and no real prospects of acquiring them though citizenship.
Stuck in the camps, Sri Lankan refugees have inadequate access to education, employment and are unable to own land.
The conditions in the camp have been strongly condemned by residents and human rights activists.
In 2006, a team of human rights activists visited the Mandapam camp at Rameshwaram.
They noted that while the Mandapam camp was said to be a transit camp, 756 people had been living there for more than 10 years.
The report also noted that in Mandapam and other camps, the accommodation had never been repaired since being built in the 1980s, and was generally "not worth living in at all." Many refugees weren't even given houses and those who had been there for more than 10 years were required to build their own accommodation.
Water remained a huge problem in the camps, with no proper toilet facilities, bathing facilities and or adequate drinking water facilities. There were no garbage collection facilities and no medical facilities other than those provided by voluntary organisations in certain camps. Where there was electricity, it was generally provided only between 6pm and 6am.
Conditions in some of the camps are so bad that in July this year, 17 Sri Lankan refugees went on a week long hunger strike.
Reason 3: India has not signed the Refugee Convention
India hosts around 456,000 refugees from Sri Lanka as well as several other countries such as Afghanistan, China and Burma. However, India is not a party to the Refugee Convention. It therefore has no international obligation to recognise and resettle refugees.
The Indian Constitution does not provide refugees and asylum seekers with the right to freedom of movement and choice of residence. The Foreigners Act and the 1948 Foreigners Order, give the Government the power to force all foreigners, including refugees and asylum seekers, to "reside in a particular place" to "[impose] any restrictions on [their] movements," and to prosecute criminally anyone aiding or abetting their escape. In addition, the Foreigners Order prohibits refugees and asylum seekers from leaving India without permission.
India allows the UNHCR to have an office in Delhi, however refugees must travel to that office in order to be registered. Even if they are able to make that journey, and are recognised as an refugee, UNHCR refugee certificate are not legal permits recognised by India and do not protect refugees from detention for illegally presence.
The Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu has reportedly requested the central government of India to grant permanent residential status to the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees residing in Tamil Nadu. However, this request has not been granted and it seems unlikely that this will change anytime soon.
So, let's ask the question again...why do some Sri Lankan asylum seekers seek protection in Australia instead of India?