The Tamils of London by Amy McConaghy

10 August 2015
Zrinka Bralo

To mark the Refugee Week 2015  we are publishing a series of excellent articles by students taking an MA in International Journalism at City University. We are very grateful  to students for sharing their work and to Professor John Owen for inspiring and guiding them to take up the challenge of telling refugee and migrants’ stories at the highest professional standards. 

Amy McConaghy is a multi media journalist and has recently completed a Masters in International Journalism at City University. She previously lived and studied in Cape Town, South Africa, where her writing was featured in local paper, The Cape Times. Amy is currently based in London.  

Twitter @AmyMcCon     Email: amy.mcconaghy26@gmail.com     

The Tamils of London 

Sasi sits in the Tamil Community center, a grey prefab building that stands on the corner of School Street in Hounslow. The area itself has a rich migrant community, and this building provides a home away from home for the Sri Lankan Tamils who turned to the United Kingdom for asylum after fleeing their country.

‘We lost so much to this stupid war. I lost my childhood. I lost my dad when I was twelve years old, they killed him. Even now, there are so many widows and children without fathers. We lost everything…[1]

She is thinking back to her years growing up in Sri Lanka, an island off the southern tip of India renowned for its natural beauty. It is a country eclipsed by a dark and bloody history of ethnic tension and a 26-year civil war between the Sinhalese dominated government and Tamil minority rebels; a conflict that forced thousands of Sri Lankans from their homes to seek refuge overseas.

Today, Sri Lankans are continuing to flee from a country that remains unstable, five years since the end of the civil war. According to the office of National Statistics, 1,813 Sri Lankans claimed asylum in the UK in the year ending Match 2014. Currently, the UK is home to 180,000 Sri Lankans[2].

Outside the environment of fear and oppression that consumed their lives back home, many of the Sri Lankan Tamils see Britain as country that can give them the freedom to establish a normal life for themselves and their families.  They arrive in the UK with nothing, hoping to start afresh in a country free from conflict.

Kandiah is a Refund Education Officer for the community center, a Sri Lankan Tamil who has been living in London for the last 15 years. “There was no calm, no peace, in Sri Lanka. Every time the bombs are blasting, people are running here and there. You cant live there, you can’t get a job, my children can’t study or go to university[3].”

In the UK, Kandiah’s children were able to go to university and he speaks of their academic success and well-established careers with pride. His outlook is one that is reflected by many, those at the Tamil Community Centre all expressing a desire to work and provide for their family, to buildup a positive future in the aftermath of their harrowing past.

Community Support

Kandiah and Sasi share the experience of civil war with the many Tamil immigrants who have turned to the center for help and guidance in a country unknown. The collective memories of Sri Lanka and war, of loosing your home and identity to seek refuge in a foreign country, unite the close-knit community and provide a base of mutual support and understanding for the Sri Lankan refugees in the area.

The Tamil community center is run by Thavarani Nagulendram (Rani), a Tamil woman who has been living in London for the past 23 years. Rani is a prominent figure in the Sri Lankan community, having provided a vital help service to Tamil immigrants for the past 12 years.

The cultural differences between Sri Lanka and the UK are vast, and when it comes to support, Sri Lankans living in the UK often feel isolated from a system that struggles to identify with them.  Having herself lived through the turmoil of war, Rani is able to hold out a vital hand of care and guidance to the Sri Lankan immigrants struggling to settle into their new lives. Maintaining a personal understanding of the fears and hardships faced as a Sri Lankan refugee, she is able to emphasise with the needs and concerns of her community and the various issues they encounter.  “I am confident speaking Tamil and I can understand their feelings, because I was affected by the war, they were affected by the war. We know their cultural background. So that’s why we are working with them,” she says[4].

Last year, over 5000 people turned to the Tamil Community Centre for help, underlining the importance of centers such as these, which provide support to migrant communities along side an in depth understanding of their cultural norms. Issues such as mental health and alcoholism are particularly prevalent in a community haunted by the memories of war, separated from loved ones and struggling to establish an identity their own outside their national community.  

A lack of understanding towards immigrants within the UK system often means there is little support for asylum seekers and refugees battling with these conditions. Rani expresses frustration with the British support systems available, which she feels overlooks the various complexities of the issues face by immigrants.

“Mental health organisations, for example, they don’t identify with refugee migrants and how they are affected by war,” says Rani.  “With the war, some people did not have a childhood, some had no teenage life. They come here, they’ve lost their family members. It’s a big trauma. How is the system working for them?[5]

The Tamil Community center is hardly equipped to handle such issues and can really only provide moral support. With the UK system of support often disengaged from the immigration problems at a grassroots level, the center is one of the few places Tamil immigrants feel comfortable enough to turn to for help.

Lost in limbo

The community center is particularly important for those Tamils struggling with the barriers put up by the immigration system, and many rely on Rani and the community for support and guidance in this matter.

The process of getting a visa and permanent leave to remain is a long and tedious one, with many refugees having to wait more than ten years. In the mean time, they are unable to work, even on a voluntary basis, and have no access to public state benefits such as health and education. They remain entirely dependent on government and voluntary support, trapped within a policy of enforced destitution.

For the Tamils who escaped a system that prevented them from working and their children from receiving a proper education, the harsh reality of the immigration system in the UK has seen hopes of a new life shattered for many. Expectations of the UK as a country of opportunity, providing a chance for a normal life where they can work and build up a future for their family, are hard to live up to when faced with the restrictions placed on asylum seekers.

Many are also fearful of the prospect of being deported back to Sri Lanka where, despite the end of the civil war, the government continues to abduct and torture Tamils it suspects of having supported the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam insurgency. In a 2013 report, Dr. Juliet Cohen, head of doctors at Freedom for Torture, documented: “We are treating individuals displaying physical and psychological consequences of torture techniques that regularly include suffocation and sexual torture, and presenting with horrific scarring caused by ‘branding’ with hot metal rods[6].”

Unable to start a new life or go back to their old one, the bureaucracy of the UK system has created a community of lost people trapped in a state of limbo. Placed in detention centers or living on the margins of a society, many Tamil immigrants continue to struggle outside the confines of the civil war they left behind.

With no state funding, there is little that can be done at the Tamil Community Centre to financially support those awaiting their asylum claims. It’s an overwhelming task, and Rani expresses feelings of helplessness:

“A lot of people call me from detention camps saying they want to commit suicide. They are being tortured and persecuted,” says Rani.  “Here, mothers don’t have access to facilities; senior citizens have no access to GP. I have a 70-year old man who still has no immigration status. He has no health care, no pension, he can’t work[7].”

For many in this situation, there is no one to turn to. If they are lucky, they may have family willing to help. However, coming from a family of refugee migrants, they too are limited in their capacity to support.

Changing Perceptions

With many immigrants struggling to become economically self sufficient within the restrictions of the UK immigration system, their genuine desire to work and contribute to society is often obscured by the freeloader stereotype depicted in media coverage. One only needs to glance at a newsstand to observe the prejudice directed towards immigrants: “We Must Stop the Migrant Invasion,” “Immigrants Bring More Crime,” “Migrants To Get More Benefits.”  As UKIP’s popularity intensifies, it seems a growing number of the British public are leaning towards the perception that immigrants are a burden to the country.

Paul Sathiansen, a councilor at East Ham council, has spent his 17 years in office challenging the discriminatory perceptions of immigrants and ensuring the immigrant voice is carried into the UK’s political arena.  “How can the local community see them as a human and help them, rather than see them as a threat?” he asks[8].

Paul’s district of East Ham is an area with a dense migrant community, of which Tamils make up a considerable portion. During his time in office, he has worked to create an environment that encourages the integration of various immigrant groups into UK society, particularly in an economic context. According to Paul, 116 businesses on the high street are now owned by Sri Lankan Tamils, making up a significant contribution to the economic development of the area.  “They work hard, they employ local people, they all pay tax, so they contribute. Local restaurants, local super markets, solicitors. They’re not only serving the Tamil community but also the wider community, they are part of the main stream here[9].”

Paul is keen to emphasise the strong work ethic and community commitments of Tamil immigrants, as well as immigrants at large. When freed from the rigid bureaucracy of the immigration system, the majority is willing and able to contribute to their wider community, be it on an economic, social or political level. “The Tamils have seen the hardship of life in different ways but have managed to come out,” says Paul. “The only thing for them is survival, bringing their children up in a better way, to give them the best education and quality of life[10].

These are sentiments to which Paul has a personal understanding. He is himself a refugee, a Tamil who arrived from Sri Lanka in 1985 with nothing but a small suitcase holding his worldly belongings. Working as a manager in Colombo as anti-Tamil riots broke out across the country, he was forced to escape to the UK.

It is this personal history that has motivated Paul to create a supportive environment in East Ham from immigrants, where the diverse range of communities are supported and given the freedom to thrive. As immigrant businesses grow and benefit the wider community, it seems clear that the thousands living in London are more than willing to work hard and contribute to society. Their contribution to the UK’s economic system was highlighted in a 2013 study by University College of London, which revealed recent immigrants were less likely to claim benefits and live in social housing than people born in Britain. According to Prof Christian Dustmann and Dr Tommaso Frattin, “when compared to natives with the same age, gender composition, and education, recent immigrants are still 21% less likely than natives to receive benefits.[11]

The Tamils community is an immigrant group that effectively reflects this, having fled Sri Lanka in search of a normal life, hoping to build a future outside the context of war and ethnic persecution. Yet, for many Sri Lankan Tamils, along side the wider immigrant community, there remains a disconnect from the structures of British life, struggling to integrate within a system that remains reluctant to identify with the various issues faced by immigrants in the UK.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Forum.  For re-publishing and other inquires please contact Amy amy.mcconaghy26@gmail.com     

 


[1] Kosaladevi Kathirakama, interviewed at the Tamil Community Centre, 3/12/2014

[3] Kandiah Narendra, interviewed at the Tamil Community Centre, 3/12/2014

[4] Thavarani Nagulendram, interviewed at the Tamil Community Centre, 3/12/2014

[5] ibid

[6] Freedom From Torture. Sri Lanka- Out of the Silence.

http://ww .freedomfromtorture.org/feature/out_of_the_silence/5979

[7] Thavarani Nagulendram, interviewed at the Tamil Community Centre, 3/12/2014

[8] Paul Sathianesan, interviewed at Newham Town Hall. 9/12/2014

[9] Siva, interviewed at the Tamil Community Centre, 20/12/2014

[10] Paul Sathianesan, interviewed at Newham Town Hall. 9/12/2014

[11] Christian Dustmass and Tommaso Frattini, The Fiscal Effects of Immigration to the UK, Centre for Research and Analysis

Bibliography

Home Office. Immigration Statistics: Janurary to March 2014. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/immigration-statistics-january-to-march-2014/immigration-statistics-january-to-march-2014. 22/05/2014

Home Office. Country Information and Guidance: Sri Lanka: Tamil Separatism. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/348268/CIG_Sri_Lanka_Tamil_Separatism_v1_0e.pdf. 29/08/12.

Freedom From Torture. Sri Lanka- Out of the Silence.

http://ww .freedomfromtorture.org/feature/out_of_the_silence/5979

Christian Dustmass and Tommaso Frattini, The Fiscal Effects of Immigration to the UK, Centre for Research and Analysis

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