For Sri Lankan Refugees, a Free and Fair Australia Is a Myth

A murder mystery is an indictment of Australia’s draconian immigration policy that has left many legitimate asylum-seekers detained, deported, or dead.

Sri Lanka migrants bound for Australia remain on their boat despite it being washed ashore.
Sri Lankan migrants bound for Australia remain on their boat after it washed ashore on the west coast of Aceh province, Indonesia, on June 14, 2016. Chaideer Mahyuddin/AFP/Getty Images

Batticaloa, Sri Lanka, is home to singing fish and mermaids. That’s the kind of story you can find on travel websites. You can also find these exotic legends in Aravind Adiga’s new murder mystery, Amnesty—whose protagonist, Dhananjaya Rajaratnam, is an undocumented Sri Lankan Tamil in Australia with a tortured past.

Batticaloa, Sri Lanka, is home to singing fish and mermaids. That’s the kind of story you can find on travel websites. You can also find these exotic legends in Aravind Adiga’s new murder mystery, Amnesty—whose protagonist, Dhananjaya Rajaratnam, is an undocumented Sri Lankan Tamil in Australia with a tortured past.

Adiga is no stranger to debates on exoticism. He intended his debut novel to render the Indian underclass visible. Instead, some critics slammed his Man Booker Prize-winning The White Tiger for employing an unconvincing title character and upholding Western fetishes about a “Dark” India. Amnesty is set in Australia—and it is less about what migrants run from and more about what they run to.

Amnesty, Aravind Adiga, Simon & Schuster, 272 pp., , February 2020

Amnesty, Aravind Adiga, Simon & Schuster, 272 pp., $26, February 2020

The pressure to belong to a host country often overwhelms a migrant’s need to examine the past. This is true for Dhananjaya, who narrates his story to an imaginary Australian audience and sheds his birth name for “Danny”—an insight, perhaps, into how assimilation pressures in host countries can become the dominant driver of migrants’ new identities.

After a state-condoned pogrom in 1983 in which thousands of Tamils were killed, waves of Sri Lankan Tamil migrants left to Australia fearing for their safety. They continued to leave during the 26-year civil war that followed. In 2012—which is around the time Danny, the novel’s protagonist, migrated—Sri Lanka was the largest source of boat arrivals to Australia. Even though many claimants provided evidence of torture, Australia accepted only 11.6 percent of applicants, deporting about 37 percent on the basis of a single interview.

In the years since, debates about why Sri Lankan Tamils migrate have been highly politicized. Over the last decade, both the Sri Lankan and Australian governments claimed—despite reams of evidence to the contrary—that Sri Lanka’s asylum-seekers were economic migrants and, by implication, that they are not victims of political violence.

Sri Lankan migration to Australia has a long history. Before 1870, few individuals moved between the two British colonies. The first sizable movements occurred between 1870 and 1900, when approximately 500 Sri Lankans migrated to Australia to work on sugar plantations.

In 1901, Australia passed the racist Immigration Restriction Act, also known as the White Australia policy. This legislation prohibited non-European migration and even deported so-called “undesirable” migrants already in the country. Adiga—himself a South Asian born immigrant to Australia—knows this history. In Amnesty, the Sri Lankan guests of a rich Tamil Australian doctor ask: “Wasn’t Australia thick with racists, though? … Don’t they have a law called the White Australia law?” Over time, the Australian government recognized it needed to populate or perish. And so the White Australia policy became less restrictive on racial grounds—letting in British migrants, then “beautiful Balts,” and from the late 1940s select temporary migrants from Asia and the Middle East.These migrants—documented, skilled, and beneficial to the Australian economy—often have very different experiences from asylum-seekers or unskilled migrants.

These early migrants to Australia still had to be fair-skinned and fit Australian aesthetic ideals. In 1947, the English-speaking Burghers (an ethnic group in Sri Lanka descended from European settlers and Sri Lankans who had relationships) claimed that their European ancestry made them suitable migrants. Waves of Burgher families migrated to Australia when the Sri Lankan government passed an act that discriminated against non-Sinhala speakers, including Tamils and Burghers, in 1956.

Skilled professionals, Sinhalese and Tamil, also began migrating for employment in the 1980s as ethnic fractures in Sri Lanka began to deepen. But these migrants—documented, skilled, and beneficial to the Australian economy—often have very different experiences from asylum-seekers or unskilled migrants. Indeed, some blue-collar Sri Lankan migrants earn less than a quarter of salaries earned by migrants who are health professionals. Adiga is sensitive to such differences in opportunity. In Amnesty, he writes, “rich Asians and poor Asians don’t seem to talk a lot to each other.” While such divisions—which in some ways replicate class inequality in Sri Lanka—are not revelatory, Adiga also demonstrates how a lack of solidarity between these groups can leave both susceptible to exploitation along racial lines.

Danny is both a political migrant—“a victim of state torture”—and an economic migrant. He is seduced by the promise of the successful Tamil emigre who now owns a mansion with a private tennis court and pool. But he also migrates because of noneconomic factors: a “menacing” Sri Lankan government, pervasive violence in his hometown, and victim-blaming—Danny’s father doesn’t believe he was tortured.

The current Sri Lankan government, led by Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a former defense secretary who oversaw military operations during the end of Sri Lanka’s civil conflict, denies that the state committed any human rights abuses. This denialism has been proved false by video footage of women being raped en masse and surrendered militants being shot at close range. Gotabaya’s false claims nevertheless allow the Australian government to forcibly return asylum-seekers (who may then be persecuted by state authorities in Sri Lanka) in violation of their right to life and Australia’s commitments to the principal of non-refoulement under the United Nations refugee convention.

Approximately 4,500 Sri Lankan asylum-seekers arrived in Australia by boat between 2009 and 2013, after the bloody end of the conflict. Like these migrants, Danny also considers getting to Australia by boat. The route is not safe, and there are risks in Australian waters and in detention. Indeed, over the last 20 years, over 2,000 people died trying to reach Australian shores. Since he has enough savings, Danny decides against it. He chooses instead to enroll in an Australian technical institute, believing he can apply for refugee status upon arrival.

The illusion of a fair Australia is a recurrent theme in Amnesty. Danny’s ambivalence about Australia morphs into cynicism about individual activists attempting to resist systemic injustice. Some, Danny recognizes, are simply virtue signaling. Others can afford to be ineffective, Danny decides, as their stakes in reform are so low: “hundreds in the street will hold up signs for you … but in the end, they’ll go home, and you will be deported.” Those activists who are citizens enjoy a political economy thriving on the exploitation of undocumented migrants—they eat food produced via migrant labor on farms and enjoy houses kept clean by inexpensive migrant work. For the undocumented migrant, who has given up hope and to whom reform appears impossible, such activism seems futile and perhaps even complicit—it only props up the deceitful image of a fair Australia.Those activists who are citizens enjoy a political economy thriving on the exploitation of undocumented migrants.

In the end, Danny doesn’t apply to change his visa status—presumably daunted by the inhumane conditions under which Australia detains its asylum-seekers, leading to frequent self-harm attempts. (Asylum seekers in detention are 200 times more likely to self-harm compared to the average Australian; Since 2000, at least 12 individuals hoping to migrate to Australia were suspected to have died by suicide while in detention.) He observes, “People will eat nails, and drink things, and cut their wrists to get out.”

Instead he returns to his technical college. But even here, he finds, “White people were cheating foreigners, and foreigners were cheating white people.” It turns out he has enrolled in a diploma mill, a billion-dollar global industry. International students pay fees. They receive diplomas, employment, and, in Australia, a backdoor to permanent residency.

In the real world, education services may be Australia’s second-largest export (after minerals). But credential fraud has tarnished the reputation of the sector. Indeed, the owner of a multimillion-dollar “ghost college” was arrested as recently as 2015. Adiga highlights the hypocrisy of such schemes. On the one hand, international student tuition bolsters the Australian economy. If international students work part time, they pay income taxes. On the other hand, these students are not eligible for Medicare (the Australian national health insurance scheme that is funded mainly through taxation) nor many other welfare benefits. When the recent coronavirus pandemic hit, international students were asked to return to their home countries, because the Australian government wouldn’t support them.

In the novel, Danny drops out of the technical college. Ignorant of the law, he then overstays his student visa. Now, neither a legal resident nor an asylum-seeker, he finds himself “an illegal’s illegal.” He is trapped in his own “custom-made cell,” and there is “no one to scream for [him] and no one to represent [him] in court.”

The dark irony of Amnesty is that although Danny covets the ostensibly “blind and fair” nature of the Australian legal system, he spends a great deal of time being hunted down by it. In Sydney, he seeks refuge in the company of other undocumented immigrants. His shield is the invisibility of the working class—“I’m just the brown man working at the back of the store”— and he takes refuge in the company of other invisible people, like the homeless Australians he observes sheltering underneath a bridge.

As an invisible spectator, Danny begins to see how well-to-do migrants themselves contribute to an exclusionary Australia—ignoring and abandoning their less wealthy counterparts despite sharing the same culture. In 2013-2014, one-third of Sri Lankan migrant taxpayers in Australia were employed as professionals. These are the privileged immigrants. They inhabit a parallel universe of private schooling, apartments in expensive neighborhoods, and fancy cars.

Despite his cynicism, Danny forms a friendship with a well-off Indian couple: Radha and Prakash. Radha is married to an unnamed white man (sometimes referred to as the “top-top man”) who is invisible, powerful, and controlling. The nonwhite characters tread carefully around this individual. Unknown to her wealthy husband, Radha sleeps with Prakash in her various apartments, and Danny is hired to clean up afterward. When Radha is murdered—the murderer’s identity is a source of suspense—Danny suspects Prakash may be responsible. The reader is also left to wonder what hand the “top-top man”—a symbol of an oppressive and omnipresent whiteness—has played in the crime.As an invisible spectator, Danny begins to see how well-to-do migrants themselves contribute to an exclusionary Australia.

Danny knows that sharing any information about Prakash’s relationship with Radha may result in his own discovery and deportation. Australian law is “this object of wonder, this incorruptible thing, the blondest animal in Australia,” Adiga writes. But despite its exclusionary nature, it is “fairer, much fairer” than in Sri Lanka, where “the law [is] a burning cigarette on your forearm.” That is enough motivation to avoid risking deportation.

At some point, the suspected murderer (Prakash) and the undocumented immigrant (Danny), who both face potential detention, become entrapped in a prisoner’s dilemma: If Danny speaks out, Prakash could be imprisoned for murder; if Prakash speaks out in turn, Danny could be deported.

Danny begins to recognize himself in Prakash. (“This is all that Prakash is today, an instinct to survive.”) He discerns that any brown man is an easy target to pin a crime on. He begins to empathize with Prakash, another South Asian being hunted down by the law. There is perhaps even solidarity between the two: Both live in “a city and a civilization built on the principle of the exclusion of men and women who were not white.” Such knowledge, Adiga reminds us, precludes one brown man from remaining indifferent to the presence of another.

This is Adiga’s literary triumph. He creates a rivalry and a false equivalence between two men who are both criminals in the eyes of the law—the murderer who is a citizen and the undocumented immigrant whose only crime was overstaying a visa. Both may face similar outcomes under Australian law despite committing incomparable transgressions.

In April 2019, a series of coordinated suicide explosions killed around 300 people in Sri Lanka. Since then, six boats carrying asylum-seekers from Sri Lanka were turned away by the Australian government. For Australia, such individuals—willing to die to escape violence in their home countries—are criminals the moment they step on a boat.

Like Danny once did, such asylum-seekers may still believe in the romantic image of Australia —diverse, open, and fair—sustained in part by skilled immigrants of varying nationalities who are welcomed to bolster the country’s economy. Like post-migration Danny, they too will find that a fair Australia is an illusion—a myth that masks deeply entrenched systems of exclusion.

Amita Arudpragasam is a Sri Lankan writer and a graduate of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and Princeton University. Twitter: @aarudpra

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