News & Updates
Both news media and general public can find important information
about updates, alerts and events that impact human rights in Sri Lanka

Diaspora and Development:Bridging between Societies and States

2013 Jul 03

By Ravinatha P. Aryasinha
Ambassador / Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka in Geneva

Given that this international forum convened by the IOM on the theme of diaspora is unprecedented, we must recognise that there is no widely accepted universal definition of the term ‘diaspora’ and in fact the term is today used to signify many different phenomena.

The working definition of diaspora proposed by the International Organization for Migration/Migration Policy Institute in Developing a Road Map for Engaging Diasporas in Development: A Handbook for Policymakers and Practitioners in Home and Host Countries (2012), which guides this discussion, describes it as, “Emigrants and their descendants, who live outside the country of their birth or ancestry, either on a temporary or permanent basis, yet still maintain affective (emotional) and material ties to their countries of origin”. By this token, it is clear that once considered as an extraordinary group that fled persecution and longed to return to their original habitat, diaspora today includes all those who live away from their country of birth or origin, but continue to identify with it -  be they naturalised foreign citizens, expatriate residents, students, migrant workers, exiles, and asylum seekers.

" A bulk of the Sri Lankan Tamil population living abroad have used the new found peace in Sri Lanka to eschew extremist ideas and to seek to re-engage with their roots in the North and the East of the country Of its near 21 million population, 3 million Sri Lankans living as diaspora amount to nearly 15%. While a small share of these are traditional migrants living in the West, over 1.8 million represent what is essentially regarded as a migrant work- force in many parts of the world, mainly the Middle East, East Asia and South East Asia "

A cautionary note that must be struck in our discussion on diaspora, is the tendency to take for granted that in all its manifestations,  diasporas are autonomous and are necessarily a force for good. While generally diaspora members can play significant roles in the development of their country of origin, including through financial, human and social resources as well as political influence, whether they will all choose to do so is questionable. Particularly in assessing the role of diaspora from countries that remain conflict affected or have recently emerged from protracted conflict, the dynamics are clearly more complex and to view it simplistically would ignore the political realities on the ground.

It is important that we recognise the complexity of the challenge we face, acknowledge the pre-disposition among some diaspora categories to make meaningful engagement not possible, and try to explore modalities through which both home states and host states could better influence diaspora in processes of conflict resolution, reconciliation and development in their home states.

While I have no doubt the concerns I have raised are common to many states which are embroiled in or emerging from separatist/irredentist/internal conflict, the experience of Sri Lanka which having overcome a largely Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora funded 30 year terrorist campaign by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) 4 years ago and is on the path to reconciliation, offers an instructive example, of both the scope as well as the complexities encountered in the nexus between diaspora, home states and host states.



Of its near 21 million population, 3 million Sri Lankans living as diaspora amount to nearly 15%. While a small share of these are traditional migrants living in the West, over 1.8 million represent what is essentially regarded as a migrant work- force in many parts of the world, mainly the Middle East, East Asia and South East Asia. The rest of the Sri Lankan Diaspora, belonging to all ethnicities of Sri Lanka - Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim and Burghers -  mainly reside in the Western hemisphere, Australia, New Zealand, India and the African continent. Of these, estimates suggest that Sri Lankan Tamils number over 1 million, of which a bulk are refugee claimants and constitute sizeable vote banks with considerable leverage within those political systems.

It is noteworthy that at present, excluding monies transferred to Sri Lanka through informal channels, the total remittances from the Sri Lankan Diaspora in 2012 was approximately $ 6.0 billion, growing by nearly 17% over 2011. This amount is equivalent to about 10% of Sri Lanka’s GDP, 25% of total government revenue and 33% of total foreign exchange earnings.

It is important to note that the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora, who during the height of the LTTE campaign were the victims of extortion, are today no monolith. A bulk of the Sri Lankan Tamil population living abroad have used the new found peace in Sri Lanka to eschew extremist ideas and to seek to re-engage with their roots in the North and the East of the country. Since 2009, considerable numbers of the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora have visited their home towns in the North after many decades, while some have also invested in Sri Lanka. But at the same time, within the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora there also continues to exist a small but vociferous group of activists intent on seeking to vilify Sri Lanka and prolong the struggle, who advocate mono-ethnic separatism in Sri Lanka while espousing the ideology of the LTTE, using its money and being manipulated by surviving political and military leaders of the LTTE who continue to live in Western countries. Among them are also some 2nd generation Tamil youth, who never experienced the real horror of the conflict  suffered by all Sri Lankans over the past 30 years, but who see this opportunity as one to be exploited as ‘political entrepreneurs’, as many other diaspora communities have also sought to do over the years.

The Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) has already shown itself to be adept at differentiating between these two categories. While there are no holds barred in seeking to identify those within the Diaspora, whose actions seek to perpetuate the legacy of terrorism and division of Sri Lanka, at the same time, GOSL has made it clear that it does not intend to demonise or isolate the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora, and that it understands that a majority among them had to act as they did through the conflict under duress from the LTTE.


The GOSL has also shown keenness to engage in a dialogue with them in the changed atmosphere, with a view to harness their talents and resources towards the betterment of Sri Lanka, particularly the Northern and Eastern Provinces, which had seen little economic development during the 30 years of the conflict. This approach was most clearly articulated by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, shortly after the conclusion of the 30 year conflict, when during his address to the 65th Session of the UN General Assembly in New York on 23 September 2010, he observed;

" While some ‘Tamil diaspora groups’ seek to contribute constructively to broad based reconciliation efforts, some other diaspora groups, especially, those described by some as supporting the LTTE "

“a great deal has been said by those beyond our borders about our Tamil community. Let me be clear, no nation on earth can wish Sri Lanka’s Tamil community more good fortune than Sri Lanka itself. To the misguided few, I say, do not allow yourselves to become an instrument of division, hate and violence, to be used as an enabler for hatred to be reborn in another form. Rather come, let us join hands and break the bonds of mistrust to rise to new horizons. Sri Lanka recognises the challenges we face, among the greatest of which is healing the wounds of the recent past.”

Following in this spirit, in addition to facilitating visits to the home towns of Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora members, and in resolving some of their long standing citizenship and land issues, GOSL has engaged in a structured dialogue with members of the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora from the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Norway, Germany, Switzerland, France among others, to enable them not only to see for themselves the significant socio-economic, political and cultural renewal taking place in the former conflict affected areas, but also to discuss with them proposals for further political empowerment of the people and economic development of these areas.

This process of involving the Sri Lankan Diaspora added fillip in 2011 through the Report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), Sri Lanka’s home-grown reconciliation mechanism. The Commission noted that;

" With a view to having greater engagement with the Sri Lankan Diaspora, a process has also been initiated to hold ‘Diaspora Investor Forums’ to guide those working abroad on investment opportunities "

“While some ‘Tamil diaspora groups’ seek to contribute constructively to broad based reconciliation efforts, some other diaspora groups, especially, those described by some as supporting the LTTE, seem to adopt an adversarial approach. It is clear to the Commission that these ‘hostile diaspora groups’ can potentially undermine the genuine efforts in Sri Lanka towards reconciliation. The Commission therefore feels that the Government together with the relevant stakeholders, especially civil society, should develop a comprehensive approach to harness the potential of the expatriate community.”

On the recommendation of the LLRC, the National Plan of Action towards the implementation of the recommendations of the LLRC has entrusted the Ministry of External Affairs the task of constituting “a Multi- Disciplinary Task Force that includes representatives from the Presidential Secretariat, External Affairs, Defence, Foreign Employment, the Private Sector, and Academia, to propose a programme of action to harness the untapped potential of the expatriate community, and to respond to the concerns of the so-called ‘hostile Diaspora groups,’ and to engage them constructively with the Government and other stakeholders involved in the reconciliation process”. A programme is being formulated to harness the untapped potential of the expatriate community through Sri Lankan overseas Missions.

With a view to having greater engagement with the Sri Lankan Diaspora, a process has also been initiated to hold ‘Diaspora Investor Forums’ to guide those working abroad on investment opportunities in securities instruments such as equities and bonds, and also to provide sufficient information about the investment opportunities in Sri Lanka and economic growth prospects, so that diaspora can themselves invest and also help in attracting investment into the country.

Further, as part of a ‘Brain Gain’ initiative, ‘WorkInSriLanka’ has also developed a web portal that provides comprehensive information that links users with key industry bodies in Sri Lanka, and is building a worldwide network to create awareness of the site and its services amongst educated professionals, mainly Sri Lankans abroad. Efforts are also being made to avail of the expertise within the Sri Lankan Diaspora by encouraging ‘professional mobility’ and ‘brain circulation’ schemes involving Sri Lanka.

Search News & Updates
Keyword
Date
Date