By Deneth Thilakasiri –
This article refers to an issue of interest and concern to the Government of Sri Lanka, which, purposefully or not, has been ignored by officials concerned over a tremendously long period. It is about individuals who utilise political developments within Sri Lanka for their personal gain, in a very different way. The individuals in question do not act from within the political realm, and are therefore different from the likes of, say, one very sleek, grey-haired businessman cum MP involved in the Sarath Fonseka affair. On the contrary, the group referred to in the following are a group of non-political, and to a large extent, apolitical individuals who use issues of political interest to their personal advantage, not in Sri Lanka but before legislative bodies in the West that deal with the tricky area of political asylum.
The venue of this story is the French capital city. To make things clearer, it is worth starting off with an example. An individual pays a dealer – a human smuggler in other words – to get to French soil through dodgy means. Once arrived, this person writes (in Sinhala, in the near-totality of cases) a story. It is a story intended to make the commissioners at the French National Refugee Commission go crying their eyes out. A typical story contains scenes of violence, often perpetrated by political gangs, rape, threats at midnight, shootings etc. which resulted in circumstances that made life in Sri Lanka miserable, and a non-option. The letter ends stating that due to the reasons explained, they made their way to France, and plead for political asylum. Letters of this nature often inspire from incidents reported in the media and other true occurrences. There can indeed be genuine cases, but the majority, or to be more realistic a large majority of the stories are fictitious accounts inspired by true events that had next to no significant impact upon the personal lives of the asylum applicants. The monumental lies are more than apparent when one reads these accounts in Sinhala.
Once written, the letter is taken to a translator, whose name appears on a list of translators accredited to the Court of Appeal in Paris. It is a long list, and although it offers a choice among a number of translators, for instance, to the Chinese or Arabic-speaking applicant, the Sinhala-speaking applicant’s choices are strictly limited. This position thus allows the bearer/s to capitalise upon Sinhalese people who hardly speak a word of French, who have just landed in France (and are therefore completely jet-lagged and ‘lost’ – in all senses of the term). Their one and only recourse is the translator, and off they go, submit their long accounts written in Sinhala, and pay to get the documents translated. Once the documents are translated, the applicants end up getting a date of hearing at the Courts of Justice, where each case for political asylum is taken into account. One thing that this writer was told by a sure insider a few years ago was that, although the number of Tamil applicants is (or at least used to be) higher than the number of Sinhalese asylum applicants, the percentage of successful Sinhalese applicants has continuously been higher than the percentage of successful Tamil applicants.
This shows how well organised the ‘asylum business’ is in the French Capital City, not for Tamils from the North of Sri Lanka but for Sinhalese from the rest of Sri Lanka. In November 2011, the National Bureau for Asylum Seekers in France (l’Office français de protection des réfugiés et apatrides – OFPRA) published a field study report on Sri Lanka (Rapport de Mission de l’Office français de protection des réfugiés et apatrides en République démocratique et socialiste de Sri Lanka du 13 au 27 mars 2011). It was compiled by a number of OFPRA officials who visited Sri Lanka, went to sensitive areas including the Vanni, and the overall objective was to assess the degree to which political asylum was a genuine necessity for Sri Lankan applicants.
What is intriguing, however, is the absence of any interest or investigation into the manner in which the Sri Lankan asylum business – a thriving one at that – has been developed in their very Capital City. OFPRA is keen on producing rapports de mission on the situation in far-away lands, but does not seem to care at all about what’s going on in its own backyard. A whole heap of highly problematic practices that amount to exploitation of the French system of asylum can be found if an investigation team were to be dispatched incognito to the Quartier de La Chapelle, close to the Gare du Nord, which is the hub of Sri Lankan immigrants in Paris. An initiative of this nature – with LTTE activists as its target – was launched during the tenure of Ambassador Chitranganee Vageeshwara several years ago (during the first term of the Rajapaksa presidency). Such lobbying for national security put Ambassador Vageeshwara in the good books of the Rajapaksa regime, which explains the fact that she has subsequently been among the few career diplomats (officials of the Sri Lanka Foreign Service who entered the service through the formal channel) to be appointed to ambassadorial positions in frontline duty stations (especially in the West).
What is happening here is a complicated affair. Those engaged in the Sinhalese asylum business – a very lucrative one – maintain undercover links to Sri Lanka’s diplomatic mission in that country (in some cases, such links are very, very…close). They also maintain a web of contacts composed of lawyers, other insiders into the judiciary, and relatively influential people in the interpreting business etc. that adds up to their strength. Then there are the long-standing links established with others in the same boat – those thriving on the asylum business through applicants from other SAARC countries. They even run offices in the 10th arrondissement, under the guise of respectably practicing the professions of translation and interpretation.
How can one assess the overall impact of what is mentioned above for Sri Lanka? The impact is clear. It is unhealthy for the Sri Lankan state to allow such asylum businesses to thrive on foreign lands, especially in the West. Many individuals who engage in anti-state activities from afar tend to be beneficiaries of this practice, who use the asylum loophole to make their way to a long-term residence card and later citizenship. This article focuses on Paris and France, and the manner in which identical businesses function in other EU states is up to the relevant authorities to examine. As far as Colombo is concerned – and if Colombo really wishes to develop its post-war foreign relations and international profile – it is necessary to have a more robust and tougher policy on practices of this nature. There has been, for instance, an influx of asylum applicants in Paris since the Sarath Fonseka affair. A number of individuals, some surely with next to no connections to Mr Fonseka, have successfully sold his name to gain their political asylum in France. The relevant Sri Lankan authorities at the Foreign and Home Affairs Ministries in Colombo (and the Ministry of Defence) and the Embassy in Paris, seem to be fast asleep. The little action they have taken in the past seems to have been ethnically motivated – targeting only the Tamils.
This issue is also linked to the wave of Sinhala opposition against Ambassador Dayan Jayatilleka in Paris. When a well-educated, articulate man with a sound profile as an academic and diplomat is appointed to a place like Paris to represent post-war Sri Lanka, it is only normal that he works hard to promote Sri Lankan interests according to the needs of the day. One such need is to convince the French government on the post-war process of recovery, that Sri Lanka is neither a failed state nor a Gulag Island, and that contrary to, say, the GTF discourse, Sri Lanka is moving forward on the path towards achieving the dividends of peace. In doing this, the Ambassador has to rework his country’s image, and proactively market Sri Lanka. Ambassador Jayatilleka has been at this during his first year of office, a thousand times better than his predecessor. He has actively engaged not only with policymaking lobbies and the diplomatic realm, but also with the wider intelligentsia, engaging with the Institut Français des relations internationals (IFRI), Université Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne and other institutions. Actions of this nature are bound to paint a more positive and futuristic picture of Sri Lanka within French authorities, leading to the inevitable judgement that Sri Lanka is no longer a ‘precarious’ case. Jayatilleka is now known to many a senior official at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs as an intellectual and skilful diplomat (comparatively, no one at Quai d’Orsay would have even known if a guy called a ‘Sri Lankan Ambassador’ existed during his predecessor’s tenure, let alone remember his name, apart from the Sinhalese in Paris who loved his victuals at parties).
Given his stylish and articulate disposition, it is not untrue that Jayatilleka has painted a totally different (and positive, and necessary) picture of the ‘Sri Lankan’ at the French foreign policy fora (no offence whatsoever, but the majority of Sri Lankan immigrants in France do not belong to the highly-skilled or professional categories, unlike Sri Lankan diaspora communities in English-speaking countries. Over the years, this has created a set of clichés and stereotypes of the ‘Sri Lankan’ among the French and non-French residents especially in Paris and to varying degrees in the rest of France – ranging from a speaker of broken English, very little and/or no French, not so sophisticated, working mainly in the sectors of cleaning (homme/femme de ménage), driving, running South Asian food stalls etc. People accustomed to that image of the ‘Sri Lankan’ and official/diplomatic representatives from Sri Lanka whose potential is not very different from the clichés, get completely busted and shocked to see a man like Jayatilleka as the top Sri Lankan official in France). All in all, Jayatilleka’s work from early 2011 to 2012 seems to have given the French authorities the impression that Sri Lanka, post-bellum, is a totally different story from the war years.
This is deeply despised and hated by individuals in the asylum business and those who have benefitted, intend to benefit, or intend to bring in their family members to France through fake asylum claims. Off they go around trying to convince every Tommy, Dickey and Harry (including the ‘chaste’ in yellow robes at times….) that Ambassador Jayatilleka is a traitor, a separatist and a brown sahib. Some of them also maintain that President Rajapaksa is the ultimate Fascist, that poor Sarath Fonseka has been so harshly treated and illegitimately imprisoned, that Sri Lanka is the quintessential trou du cul du mondewhere people live in misery and where violence in all its forms is rampant.
It is important for Ambassador Jayatilleka and the relevant ministries in Colombo – and most importantly the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence – to be highly vigilant of the fake asylum crowd. If anything, this issue should be treated as a national security priority. The need of the hour is a consistent national policy on the manner in which issues of asylum and illegal immigration are managed in conjunction with foreign governments. It is important for Colombo to take every possible measure within its means to close all existing loopholes, and prevent people from capitalising upon problems within Sri Lanka, bringing disgrace to the country, and thus creating a community of exiled citizens who are more prone to anti-state activity. There is one major caveat here. There is strictly no point putting the blame only upon the people who seek asylum, or upon those who run the asylum business. Both groups are inevitable products of an essentially problematic system. The most important step therefore is to address the root causes that encourage people to seek recourse to the asylum route. One key way of getting there is by being mature and consistent when dealing with policy issues.
Equally, there is no magic solution, and addressing these issues require both short- and long-term strategies. Developing a consistent post-war national security policy, which is firm and intolerant of anti-state activists but ensures essential democratic space for protest, contestation and collision – is primordial. Secondly, longer-term steps such as increases in the education budget, especially in vocational training and teaching foreign languages will help fill a massive gap – a gap one so tragically notices between the articulate Emissary in Paris and the ordinary man and woman who comes around for consular assistance at his duty station in rue Spontini, in the 16th district of Paris. Such efforts need to be combined with a concerted, collective programme, developed in partnership with Western governments, to provide very little hope for those seeking political asylum on essentially fake grounds. By no means does this imply that those who really need and deserve political asylum, such as investigative journalists under threat (from any country on the face of this planet), vulnerable individuals, those in public life under security threats etc. ought not to benefit from political asylum in any foreign country of their choice. A tougher policy partnership on asylum between Colombo and Western governments (especially the French government) does not mean that the latter would stop their national asylum policies. On the contrary, such a policy could only positively benefit those in need of asylum, and negatively benefit fake asylum seekers and the crooks that shamelessly capitalise upon them.