At the end of crackly telephone line, Selvan said to me, “if I had a choice, do you actually think I’d risk it all to sail on open ocean in a rickety fishing trawler for 23 days, minimum supplies, without basic swimming skills, to arrive in a country where I have no family, no friends, no job?”
I’d know him for some time now, and although Selvan was passionate and prone to impulse, I did know that he would never abandon his home, his mother and all things familiar, for a reason that was not substantial enough.
From a young age, like so many of his generation, Selvan’s life was entrenched in complexities that protracted war brings. Selvan’s father and uncle were amongst the 158 people who were rounded up under suspicion of LTTE links, and loaded onto buses by the army in Batticaloa’s Eastern University campus in 1990. His father was a fisherman, who along with his brother and thousands others sought refuge in the university campus as violence enveloped the nearby towns from July 1990 onward. As the army-driven bus rolled out the campus, the 158 were never to be seen again. From the beginning of 2004, Selvan had been receiving threats from Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP) upon refusing recruitment into their paramilitary. The TMVP, an eastern group that had split off from the LTTE as internal rivalry grew, had been allegedly recruiting youth en masse into its forces to fight the LTTE, while working in alliance with the Sri Lankan army. Having somehow avoided forced conscription, Selvan later ended up being taken into police custody on false charges, tortured and interrogated in custody, and persecuted after his first attempt to leave the island by boat had failed in 2009.
The civil war had created a life of strife, allowing escaping on a boat as the only choice even 2 years after the ending of the war. When I finally got to see Selvan in Australia, he was gaunt, sunburnt and weather-beaten. He told me about the vomit and the stench of being at sea with 33 scared, sea-sick and desperate people. He told me about the running out of drinking water 16 days into the journey, of the boat rolling on nightmarishly large waves. He recounted begging at the captain’s feet to not turn the boat around when demands for more smuggling-money weren’t received well. He recalled sharks swimming around the boat when the engine failed.He told me about how he volunteered to climb to the mast to light flares at night to attract planes flying overhead, while their tiny trawler bobbed inconspicuously on open ocean.
But most of all, he kept coming back to the point of how the years of war brought him from one phase of despair in Sri Lanka to another; and from being at others’ mercy in his homeland, to being at the mercy of a people-smuggler at sea. From so many who escaped the island’s war and its fallout, this is the chorus you’ll hear.
Lucky for Selvan, unlike many others, or his uncle, he made it alive. More like him continue to arrive on Australian shores seeking refuge, but to a different reception from now on. The recent Australian policy allows for indefinite detention of asylum-seeker in offshore processing centres in Manus. The move aimed at deterring boats carrying asylum-seekers, is unjust, inhumane, and an ‘outsourcing’ of human rights responsibility. Nearly 90%of all asylum-seekers are proven to have genuine grounds to seek refuge – like Selvan, they are victims of torture, sexual violence and persecution.
As a signatory to the Refugee Convention, Australia is obligated to process claims of asylum-seekers, in its territory. And if it were to step up to the game from ground up, addressing the flow of asylum-seekers would require Australia and her international alliances to question and call for change in the human rights situation in Sri Lanka.
Four years on, the ripple effect of the war in Sri Lanka persists while the lack of accountability continues to baffle. While money is poured into building infrastructure, improving tourism in the North-East, thousands still continue to live resettled lives without basic facilities. Families of the disappeared continue to seek answers. Victims of grave sexual abuse by armed forces are yet to have their claims investigated. All while the militarization in the north and east continues to expand. Many will tell you that despite the war ending four years ago, such little has changed for the better for communities in the east and north. It is not uncommon to hear fisherman talking of restrictions placed on where they can or cannot fish, due to expanding naval security zones. Where once nets were cast freely, local fisherman aren’t allowed. And in many areas where once grain was grown, land is seized for military camps, or simply lies fallow.
As reports and evidence of large scale deaths of civilians in Sri Lanka made news after May 2009, most of the world stood idly by, when compared international intervention executed, say, in Libya. The process for bringing to book those who were involved in human rights violations in Libya has been swift and internationally steered. But here in Sri Lanka successive opportunities to kick into action an internationally recognized investigation, have come and gone. Despite there having been UN periodic review, a high-level visit by the UN High Commission for Human Rights, and with CHOGM looming around the corner, justice for victims of grave human rights violations and atrocities, is still on hold.
The role that India can play in initiating this justice process must not be underplayed. If India were to emerge as an assertive power in the Global South, it’s responsibility to insist on, guide and ensure an accountability process in Sri Lanka is paramount. As the 24st session HRC is underway, the global lens must refocus on the fact that in Sri Lanka’s post-war context reconciliation, justice, peace and recovery cannot be mutually exclusive.