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Refugeehood, Activism, and the Idea of “Home”

Tamil Guardian
Tamil civilians in an internal displacement camp in Mullivaikkal, May 2009. Photo Credit: Tamil Guardian
May 29, 2020

In addition to her current role at SCSC, Vino Landry was a 2018 Social Connectedness Fellow, during which she researched the trauma endured by refugees as they flee conflict in their homelands and seek refugee status in host nations, with a particular focus on how these experiences can reverberate through intergenerational trauma. This piece explores the delicate balance diaspora activists must navigate in advocating for justice in their country of origin alongside an allegiance and gratitude to the host nation that has become their home.

The refugee who flees their homeland in the context of conflict is confronted by a unique predicament — retaining emotional and social ties to conflict in their homeland despite being geographically detached from it. They develop a diasporic identity that is shaped jointly by their host state and their homeland, as well as the interactions between the two.

As the Sri Lankan civil war escalated in 2009, demonstrations erupted across Canada, with Tamil-Canadians forming human chains on Toronto sidewalks and gathering en masse on Parliament Hill to request that the Canadian government help broker peace in Sri Lanka.1 Another demonstration, now known as the Gardiner Protest, took place on the entrance ramp of a major east-west freeway in Toronto. This protest received massive mainstream coverage due to the major disruptive effects of the five-hour traffic jam it created throughout the downtown core, molding the public debate and framing the Tamil diaspora as unworthy citizens, troublesome immigrants, and terrorists.2 Pundits argued that immigrants should leave their political baggage at the proverbial airport, and that ties to home might present a threat to national belonging in the adopted homeland.3

Tamil Canadians gather in front of Parliament Hill to call for governmental support in bringing an end to the civil war in Sri Lanka, May 2009. Photo Credit: Tamil Canadian Centre for Civic Action

Seeing Canadian authorities remain silent while their families were actively being shelled in Sri Lanka, the Tamil-Canadian refugee is made painfully aware of their place in this society. Having availed themselves of the protections of this country, they are confronted by the realization that their relationship remains tenuous, leaving them little social or political capital with which to call for interventions in the homeland they left behind. Through the members of the mobilized diaspora, transitional justice is both globalized and deterritorialized.4 This cultural anxiety not only reveals an inherent fragility in the alleged multiculturalism of Canada, but it creates a hostile framework within which refugees and asylum seekers who comprise the diaspora are forced to negotiate and renegotiate their identities. The refugee in Canada exists in the precarious nexus between “Sri Lankan-born Tamil” and “grateful new Canadian.”5 In The Displaced, a collection of personal accounts from refugee writers, Viet Thanh Nguyen expounds on this tension, writing that refugees are made to feel “either invisible or hypervisible, but rarely just visible.”6

By staging large scale protests in Canada in a final and dramatic plea for peace in their homeland, Tamil-Canadians had unwittingly raised questions about their place within Canadian society. After the Gardiner Protest, 12,000 Tamil-Canadians gathered in Queen’s Park with large amounts of nonperishable food donations for the Daily Bread Food Bank. They raised the Canadian flag, played “Oh Canada,” and handed out small cards to passersby that read: “We are sorry for the trouble; understand our struggle.” 

Despite this attempt to renegotiate their identities as grateful and harmless Canadian citizens who would not block a highway again, the damage had been done. In contrast to conventional representations of refugees as fleeing conflict, members of the diaspora, upon being granted the protections of a host country are no longer vulnerable to war or internal displacement in their new communities; instead their behaviors and affiliations with the their homeland are implicitly policed by the social norms and conventions of their host nation to ensure that they are the good and grateful kind of refugee.

Watching friends, families, and neighbours in Sri Lanka suffer the injustices of the war, members of the diaspora endured emotional traumas of their own despite not being directly embroiled in the war.7 This tension is explained in another account from The Displaced: “To become a refugee is to know, inevitably, that the past is not only marked by the passage of time, but by loss – the loss of loved ones, of countries, of identities, of selves.”8 

Feeling disconnected from both the motherland from which they derive generations of culture and history, and the new host country in which they hope to develop their futures, refugees and their children are left searching for belonging and never quite finding it. 

Academic Emma Haddad describes this alienating feeling as a “double displacement” in which the migrant experiences “a physical displacement from the so-called home community and a symbolic and at times violent displacement from agency.”9 In the instance of refugees and forced migrants, the decision to leave home is often taken on their behalf, being a necessary decision made under duress. Consequently, the migrant “lives between the country of origin and her host country, trapped by division in a no man’s land of hope and memory.”10

Over 100,000 civilians crossed the Nanthikadal Lagoon in an attempt to flee an active warzone, April 2009. Photo Credit: Adayaalam Centre for Policy Research

Having observed the challenges faced by their parents’ refugee generation at the peak of the civil war, Canadian-born and university-educated Tamil youths have devised alternate strategies to mobilize and push for agents of global governance to facilitate and enforce accountability and transitional justice on the part of the Sri Lankan government. The Adayaalam Centre for Policy Research and People for Equality and Relief in Sri Lanka (PEARL) are two examples of organizations founded by Tamil women, based in Toronto and Washington respectively, who aspired to do more as activists and advocates for a country that they still see as their motherland. 

These organizations work to achieve accountability on the part of the Sri Lankan government, to reduce the heavy militarization of northern Sri Lanka, and to protect Tamil Sri Lankans’ right to memorialize the dead in a time when the government has actively obstructed this effort by demolishing Tamil gravesites.11 By establishing roots and networks amongst university students and young professionals, these diaspora organizations are creating generations of Tamils that engage with high-level political processes to demand justice through independent, impartial, and transparent mechanisms.12 

Resolution 30/1, adopted by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in 2015, committed the Sri Lankan government to establishing a “judicial mechanism with a special counsel to investigate allegations of violations and abuses of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law.”13 Despite receiving a two-year extension in 2017, the government requested an additional two-year extension at the 40th session of the UNHRC in March 2019.14 

Diaspora organizations such as the Adayaalam Centre and PEARL are actively working to mobilize in their professional and activist spheres to ensure that this inaction on the part of the government is held up to international scrutiny. They are also doing the work of mapping militarization in the North-East and compiling the names and last-known locations of the 20,000 people who went missing in the last phase of the civil war, since accessible and comprehensive information is a vital component of engaging foreign governments and international organizations in the struggle for transitional justice in Sri Lanka. 

Another diaspora-led initiative is the International Truth and Justice Project. By publishing ongoing, thoroughly researched, and easily accessible reports, this project is working to assist victim communities in Sri Lanka in seeking accountability.15 They also gather and store evidence for potential future justice processes, with every report translated into Sinhalese, Tamil, and English. Administered by the Foundation for Human Rights in South Africa, this organization is able to do the kind of work that would be difficult, if not dangerous, to conduct from within Sri Lanka. Through this approach of research and advocacy work on the past and present plight of Tamil Sri Lankans, diaspora activists are transforming the struggles of a small island in the Indian Ocean into a movement for justice and reconciliation manifested at a transnational scale.16

On June 19, 2019, ten years and one month after the formal end of the Sri Lankan civil war, the Canadian House of Commons passed a motion reaffirming Canada’s call for Sri Lanka to implement its obligations within a clearly specified time frame, as mandated under the UN Human Rights Council Resolutions 30/1 and 40/1, and reaffirmed Canada’s support in advancing accountability, peace, and reconciliation among all peoples on the island. The same motion also called for a separate United Nations investigation into allegations of genocide against Tamils in Sri Lanka, building on the findings of a 2015 UN investigation which outlined multiple instances of shelling of Tamil civilians by the Sri Lankan army. For Tamils across the globe, it was a heartening victory after decades of navigating the complex dynamics of mobilizing against human rights abuses when “home” is both the country you were forced to flee, and the one that opened its arms to you in a time of need. 

In February of 2020, however, Sri Lanka’s Minister of Foreign Relations formally notified the UN Human Rights Council that it was withdrawing from the UN resolution on post-war accountability and reconciliation, calling the resolution a “blot on the sovereignty and dignity of Sri Lanka.”17 This recent development highlights the push and pull of diaspora activism, which operates mainly through international mechanisms of diplomacy and accountability that are countered by states stubbornly citing national sovereignty. The inherent challenge of diaspora activism against war crimes is that it comes as no surprise that countries that enabled state-sponsored violence would also be quick to dismiss the moral quandary of evading accountability. For this very reason, host nations — in which the displaced have now set down their roots — must do more to support their ongoing struggle for justice in the homelands that were left behind.


  1. Glynis George, “The Canadian Tamil diaspora and the politics of multiculturalism,” Identities 18, no. 5 (2011), 460.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Glynis George, “The Canadian Tamil diaspora and the politics of multiculturalism,” Identities 18, no. 5 (2011), 460.
  5. Glynis George, “The Canadian Tamil diaspora and the politics of multiculturalism,” Identities 18, no. 5 (2011), 466.
  6. Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives, Abrams Press (2018), 15.
  7. Matthias Fatke and Markus Freitag, “Subtle social stressors of civil wars: Transformation of social networks and psychological distress in Sri Lanka,” International Sociology 34, no. 1 (2019), 4.
  8. Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives, Abrams Press (2018), 22.
  9. Emma Haddad, The refugee in international society: between sovereigns, Vol. 106. Cambridge University Press, 2008, 40.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Andrew Chisholm, “Transitional Justice and Guarantees of Non-Repetition: Sri Lanka and the Office on Missing Persons (OMP),” International Journal on Rule of Law, Transitional Justice and Human Rights 9, no. 9 (2018), 145.
  12. Nick Lewer, “Tensions Between Short Term Outcomes and Long Term Peacebuilding in Post-war Sri Lanka,” In Negotiating Reconciliation in Peacemaking, Springer, Cham, 2017, 298.
  13. Andrew Chisholm, “Transitional Justice and Guarantees of Non-Repetition: Sri Lanka and the Office on Missing Persons (OMP),” International Journal on Rule of Law, Transitional Justice and Human Rights 9, no. 9 (2018), 145.
  14. Amnesty International, “Sri Lanka: New Human Rights Council Resolution Must Lead to Faster Progress,” Amnesty International. Accessed March 26, 2019. 
  15. Nick Lewer, “Tensions Between Short Term Outcomes and Long Term Peacebuilding in Post-war Sri Lanka,” In Negotiating Reconciliation in Peacemaking, Springer, Cham, 2017, 279.
  16. Camilla Orjuela, “Mobilising diasporas for justice. Opportunity structures and the presencing of a violent past.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 44, no. 8 (2018), 1367.
  17. Permanent Mission of Sri Lanka to the United Nations, “43rd Session of the Human Rights Council – High Level Segment Statement by Hon. Dinesh Gunawardena, Minister of Foreign Relations of Sri Lanka,” February 26 2020.