Sexual violence in armed conflict (SVAC) and impunity for the perpetrators of the mass crimes against civil population in Sri Lanka written in blood in the stories of the Tamil asylum seekers. Despite real threats acknowledged in foreign courts and human rights organisations, Sri Lankan Tamils seeking asylum in Lithuania have not yet received a single positive decision.
In an interview with Marija Rakickaja, from the Centre for Combating Human Trafficking and Exploitation Rytis Satkauskas, managing partner of ReLex Law Firm, explains the need to address this reluctance to understand the deep-rooted stigma of Tamil girls:
“In recent months, Sri Lanka has attracted the world’s attention because of the protests that have rocked the country, which is reeling from the economic crisis. Although the protests were massive, not everyone felt represented. The Tamil minority, which makes up around 15% of Sri Lanka’s population, is wary of the protests. Although the economic crisis has affected the Tamils as much as the ethnic majority, they are often harassed or repressed for taking part in protests, and see these mass actions as a privilege of the majority.
In addition, the Tamils feel resentment at the election of the now resigned President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in 2019. It was Rajapaksa who led the Sri Lankan armed forces at the end of the civil war. Rajapaksa, nicknamed the Terminator for his brutality, is held responsible not only for the bloody crackdown on thousands of Tamil civilians at the end of the war, but also for the increased repression of Tamils under his rule.
The roots of the divisions in Sri Lankan society go back to the period of British colonisation. At that time, the Tamil minority, which historically had a higher level of education, occupied many of the state posts, which were divided along ethno-religious lines. When Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948 was followed by a shift to parliamentary democracy, the balance of power was reversed. The Sinhalese majority, which had gained political ascendancy, sought to reduce Tamil influence. Tamil media and literature were banned and their access to higher education was restricted on the grounds that Tamils were disproportionately educated. Finally, Sinhala was declared the only national language.
In the 1970s, Tamil discontent grew and political, paramilitary groups began to emerge, seeking Tamil autonomy. The most influential of these became the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or simply ‘Tamil Tigers’, an organisation that even had its own navy and air force, and which sought not only autonomy but an independent Tamil state. The Tamil Tigers’ methods have led the group to be recognised as a terrorist organisation by many countries, but they saw themselves as fighters against the oppression of the Sri Lankan Government. In 1983, a 26-year civil war broke out between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan military, which ended in a crackdown on Tamil separatists in 2009.
Around 100 000 Tamil civilians were killed during the war. In addition, rape of Tamil women by the Sri Lankan army, sexual exploitation camps and slavery, which began before the war, were widespread. A war crimes commission was set up after the war, but has not yet fulfilled its function and the persecution of Tamils has continued.
In the early post-war years, it was first those associated with the Tamil Tigers who were targeted, then Tamil human rights and accountability activists. In recent years, it has often been Tamils of lower social status or lower economic status who are unable to protect themselves. Many Tamils have experienced enforced disappearances, i.e. detentions or abductions by state agencies that are not recognised.
Moreover, according to a 2021 report by the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP), an international NGO working in Sri Lanka, Tamils continue to be subjected to sexual abuse and torture by Sri Lankan security forces. It also found that single Tamil women are particularly vulnerable. As many as 90 per cent of Tamils working in factories have experienced sexual violence or harassment at some point. The situation is compounded by the problem of impunity. In Sri Lanka, only 10 per cent of reported cases of sexual violence are prosecuted, and conflict-related sexual violence is generally undefined in the Sri Lankan legal system.
The repercussions of this seemingly distant reality have reached Lithuania, along with the Sri Lankan Tamils who have arrived here via Belarus and are in migrant camps. The story of one young Tamil woman is told in a letter by her mother.
The girl’s father died of a heart attack in 2005. There was no news of him until the end of the civil war. In 2009, after losing an eye, he returned to his family, but was soon taken away by plain-clothes officers and never came back. His mother knows nothing about his fate.
In 2013, her younger son was also arrested. He also disappeared after this event. Until 2017, the women lived with her mother’s parents, but within a few years both grandparents died. Since then, when her mother went to work as a cleaner in rich people houses, the girl stayed at home alone. One day, four men came to the house and said they had to interview her. Two of them waited outside while the other two went inside, treated her rudely and touched the girl inappropriately. The visits were repeated several times.
In 2021, four men reappeared, allegedly for questioning. When the women tried to leave, they vandalised the house and tried to take her daughter away. The girl managed to escape and hide in the woods. After the incident, she became depressed and tried to commit suicide. A family friend decided to help the women. On 5 July 2021, the mother sent the young girl abroad. After this incident, she continued to be harassed and questioned about her daughter. Eventually, she left her village and is now living in a relative’s house in another town, while her daughter ended up in one of Lithuania’s migrant camps.
This girl is not the only Tamil trying to get asylum in Lithuania. Rytis Satkauskas, the lawyer representing her, says that currently about half of his clients are Sri Lankans and all of them are Tamils. Most of them note that they had a relatively peaceful life from 2012 to 2013, but things have changed with the resurgence of attacks and sexual violence in 2019, when the principle of arbitrariness and impunity for crimes against Tamils came back into force.
Women who seek legal counsel usually do not have brothers or fathers, or have elderly parents who cannot protect them. Not all of them are fleeing violence they have already experienced. Sometimes the solution is a combination of factors that prevent women from building a future in their country. It could be the sexual harassment suffered by women whose family members belonged to the Tamil Tigers, or the general practice of discrimination against Tamils, of harassment of Tamils, which makes it impossible to get an education, to start a family, to start a business and simply to earn an income.
Tamil male asylum seekers also claim being victims of sexual violence, which is used to extract information through torture, interrogation, humiliation or revenge. Although there are not many such cases, according to the lawyer, there are some men who have suffered this but do not specify. It is therefore essential that officials conducting interviews are properly trained in both psychological skills and knowledge of the countries concerned and their historical and political context, so that they can formulate questions and evaluate the answers.
Satkauskas explains that legal aid is particularly relevant for Sri Lankan Tamils as under the readmission agreement with Sri Lanka it is possible to return people to Sri Lanka by force. The lawyer points out that in Europe, Tamil asylum applications are examined very carefully, especially when it comes to the issue of forced return, as the research carried out confirms the real threats faced by this group of people.
Indeed, the potential risks to Sri Lankan Tamils have been described by various international sources. The 2021 ITJP report refers to the practices of torture and sexual violence that are entrenched in the Sri Lankan system due to impunity. In the same year, the UK High Court identified the risk of harassment and violence by Sri Lankan power structures against single Tamil women.
The Canadian Bureau of Migration and Refugees’ 2020-2022 statement identifies low socio-economic status as a risk factor for Tamils, in addition to real or perceived links to the Tamil Tigers and being a single woman. There is also consensus on the high likelihood of persecution for returnees who claim a connection to the Tamil Tigers when applying for asylum.
Mr Satkauskas acknowledges that not all asylum claims are justified, but nevertheless observes a very formal approach to the processing of asylum claims in Lithuania. According to him, in twenty cases, the same description of the country of origin threats is given, without taking into account the nature of the individual circumstances. For example, the risk to a former Tamil separatist militant is not distinguished from the risk to women associated with militants. It is common practice to refer to the described threats as hypothetical when rejecting an asylum application, despite the fact that the evidence provided by the applicant is consistent with the risk factors established by international practice.
The lawyer points to a certain reluctance to believe the asylum seeker’s account, and the denial of the opportunity to provide such an account. The process is also flawed in that State-guaranteed legal aid covers only certain actions. It does not include advising the asylum seeker on his case, filing the asylum application, or having a lawyer present when the application is filed, so that he does not have the opportunity to ask clarifying questions. The result is a situation where the lawyer only plays a formal role in the court proceedings and does not represent the person.
“An asylum seeker does not necessarily have a legal background and is not necessarily very focused. His story may revolve around an event, his journey, for example, or some other aspect, but without highlighting those aspects that are relevant to the asylum claim, unfortunately he does not receive any legal assistance at that time. Interestingly, very often the entire asylum application is examined on the basis of that initial statement alone,” explains Mr Satkauskas.
The lawyer also points out that it is important to take into account the fact that Tamil interviews and trials are conducted through two translators: Tamil-English and English-Lithuanian when examining cases and assessing the consistency and detail of the stories. Moreover, the qualifications of the Tamil-English translators are not checked and there is no way to verify the accuracy of the translation.
Rytis Satkauskas mentions that the very low number of successful applications, which is currently only half of one per cent, is also an indication of the flawed nature of the processing of asylum applications in general. So far, the lawyer is not aware of a single case where a Tamil asylum application has been granted in Lithuania, although the percentage is quite high abroad. Asylum hearings for a large number of Tamils are currently reopened, but no final decisions have yet been taken. The lawyer acknowledges that people whose applications are reopened often do not wait for final decisions because they do not believe that their applications will be processed effectively in Lithuania:
“This is another major detriment, because the influx of refugees is not fully prepared for. The incompetent urgent processing of applications takes away asylum seekers’ confidence that they could be processed properly at all.”
It is common practice to use a psychologist as an expert in cases of victims of abuse. Asked to comment on this issue, Mr Satkauskas said that this should happen. He is aware of a case where the Migration Department reopened the examination of an asylum application on the basis of a psychologist’s certificate. However, in several cases, psychological certificates in the possession of the lawyer, confirming the signs of the violence in question, were not accepted by the court because the State Border Guard Service did not classify the persons concerned as vulnerable.
The problem of psychological support can also be linked to cases of attempted suicide. In his legal practice, a woman was sent to her country of origin and attempted to commit suicide at the airport. She was then imprisoned and had her phone taken away, but was sent back a few weeks later anyway. So she was sent regardless of her well-being, which is what she claimed to be the threat to her. More than one of the lawyer’s clients has attempted suicide, but this does not force a re-examination of, or more attention to, the cases of such individuals. On the contrary, such asylum seekers are punished, have their phones taken away, and their emergency contacts and contact with relatives are restricted.
Kristina Mišinienė, Head of the Centre for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings and Exploitation, also raises this issue in response to the Tamil situation:
“I see in the Tamil story several important moments for us to understand and take responsibility as a democratic society. After listening to the story of the Sri Lankan woman, the Migration Service worker in our country decides that the officers who broke into her house acted … respectful. Why this conclusion was reached, we will probably never know. In another situation, a woman who could not stand the uncertainty, the loneliness and the lack of psychological help raised her hand against herself in one of Lithuania’s migrant detention centres. How did this end? An even harsher prison regime. These decisions are made in the name of all of us, but we categorically disagree with them.”
In his legal practice, a woman who was sent to her country of origin tried to commit suicide at the airport in resistance. She was then imprisoned and had her phone taken away, but was sent back a few weeks later anyway.
Accountability for the proper treatment of asylum seekers is also an international issue. Rytis Satkauskas notes that Lithuania is committed to ensuring that asylum applications are properly handled, both within the EU and the wider international community, adding:
“The fact that foreign courts have found that Lithuania has not been given the opportunity to properly submit an asylum application is not a victory for Lithuania, as is often reported in the press, but a defeat for the country.”
Reacting to this situation as a victory, according to the lawyer, is linked to a desire to isolate oneself from a world that is unfamiliar and incomprehensible to us. It can be seen as a missed opportunity to broaden horizons, enrich society, and gain the benefits of integrating foreigners, as described by more than one study, in terms of business prospects, tourism, and mindset. It is also an opportunity to learn from the reality of other parts of the world:
“This situation should open our eyes. The news of sexual violence in Ukraine has already shown that such violence in armed conflict is a reality, it is not something that happened at the beginning of the last millennium. It is happening here. It is also happening in other countries around the world, and that suffering in other countries should not be stranger to us than the suffering of the Ukrainians simply because we do not speak the language of those people.
The case of Sri Lanka shows that the consequences of conflict-related sexual violence stigmatise Tamil women and continue to legitimise such violence. It is the cases of these asylum seekers that should be publicly discussed, debated and seen for the damage that this stigmatisation of victims and impunity for violence does to society. We choose to ignore it. This is perhaps the most terrible consequence of this emergency. We have the opportunity to open up to the world that is coming to us, and we try to ignore it, to close it off somewhere, to isolate ourselves and to insulate ourselves from it, instead of trying to make sense of this world – we live in it, we cannot escape it, however much we may try.
The public should be aware of these cases, of the reality in distant countries, countries with which we need two translators to communicate and to which we go on holiday,” notes Rytis Satkauskas.