The Tamils who came to stay

by Terence MacNamee

Recently the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg found against Switzerland in a case involving one of two Tamils who had been sent back to Sri Lanka and promptly disappeared into prison.

The civil war in Sri Lanka is long over, and there are encouraging signs of a return to some kind of normality, but many Tamils still have to be careful when they go back to visit. On the other hand, in the refugee-receiving countries in Europe, like Switzerland, there is a problem with the credibility of refugees who can and do go back to their home country on holidays.

The Sri Lanka Tamils started arriving in the 1980s during the civil war. They came to Switzerland by accident rather than design: many were aiming to settle in Germany, but found that as refugees they couldn’t work there. So they moved on to Switzerland. Then the clan connections resulted in more and more people coming.

In 1986 the Swiss were getting ready to send people back to Sri Lanka if they were turned down for refugee status, but held off due to humanitarian protests. Swiss journalist Alfred A. Häsler, who had researched the Swiss policy towards refugees from Nazi rule in the Second World War, wrote an article at the time entitled “Tamils – today’s Jews?” and wrote: “Sri Lanka is not Auschwitz… But not everything that is not as bad as Auschwitz is all right.”

The Tamils have been here ever since, about a hundred thousand of them. They must have seemed so exotic at first, when Switzerland had no tradition of immigration from outside Europe. Now you would hardly notice them. They are the dark faces in every crowd in the towns and cities of German Switzerland. They may even become a part of your personal life, as they eventually did in mine.

Regarded with suspicion at first, they now have the reputation of being “well integrated”. However, as Tamil observers themselves will tell you, this is largely an illusion. A 2008 study of the group in Switzerland found that there was “selective integration”. They fit in by behaving well and not causing trouble, but they keep to themselves otherwise, the intact clan structure allowing them to do this.

In the meantime, alcoholism was becoming a major problem among the menfolk. There were many stresses on the Tamils. As a visible minority, they couldn’t just merge in. The gulf between their Asian and the European culture was just so great. They found it hard to learn German. And without a good knowledge of the language, they could only get unskilled jobs. At the same time there were pressures from the clans at home to demonstrate success in the new country, and of course to send remittances.

The Tamil refugees’ children or their grandchildren may have an easier time of it. A 2010 study in Zurich schools found that Tamils did considerably better than other immigrant groups. This also has a negative side, however: the parents may be putting pressure on the youngsters to work hard at school, because their school success reflects on the family prestige, and there may be unrealistic ideas about future career prospects.

In general, people who emigrate tend to stay abroad and not come back. They see new things, get new ideas, and the old way of life no longer seems so obvious. All those people who will stay abroad and make the best of it in places like Switzerland will be a tremendous loss to Sri Lanka. But it could also be that they can help to draw the country out of its long isolation.