Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora

Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora
புலம்பெயர் ஈழத் தமிழர்
Total population
887,000 (estimated)
Regions with significant populations
 Canada ~200,000 (2007)[1]
 United Kingdom ~120,000 (2007)[2]
 India ~100,000 (2005)[3]
 France ~100,000 (2008)[4]
 Germany ~60,000 (2008)[5]
  Switzerland ~50,000 (2008)[6]
 Malaysia ~24,436 (1970)[7]
 Netherlands ~20,000 (2008)[8]
 Norway ~10,000 (2000)[9]
 Denmark ~9,000 (2003)[10]
Tamil, English, Italian, French, Dutch, German
Predominantly Hinduism of Saivite sect with a Christian and Roman Catholic minority
Related ethnic groups
Indian Tamils  · Portuguese Burghers  · Sinhalese  · Sri Lankan Moors  · Veddas  · Giraavarus  · Indo-Aryans  · Dravidian people

The Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora refers to the global diaspora of Sri Lankan Tamil origin. It can be said to be a subset of the larger Sri Lankan and Tamil diaspora.

Like other diasporas, Sri Lankan Tamils are scattered and dispersed around the globe, with concentrations in South Africa, United Kingdom, Canada, India, Europe, Australia, United States, Malaysia, Singapore, Seychelles and Mauritius. Significant segments of the Tamil diaspora prefer to be labeled "Eelam" or "Eezham" Tamils, as a reference to an aspired separate Tamil state on the island of Sri Lanka.[11]

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British colonial period

Many of the Vellalar Jaffna Tamils availed themselves of the educational opportunities provided by the colonial authorities and missionaries, and earned many government posts offered to locals by the British. In foreign lands under British rule, the British needed obedient, trusted, hard-working and skillful people to take up government posts, mainly as clerks. This led to the first wave of migrations by the Tamils to countries such as Malaysia (then Malaya), Singapore and the then Madras Presidency in India.

Malaysia and Singapore

Sri Kandaswamy Kovil along Jalan Scott

Ceylonese Tamils made up an overwhelming majority in the civil service of British Malaya and Singapore prior to independence. It was in Malaysia and Singapore, that the term "Ceylonese" and "Jaffnese" were popularly used by the Sri Lankan Tamils to differentiate themselves from the larger Malaysian Indian population who were predominantly of Tamil origin.

After the Pangkor Treaty of 1874, the British embarked upon the construction of roads, railways, schools, hospitals and government offices in the Malay Peninsular, to develop the country and to increase its revenue.

"It was to meet those early problems that Malaya looked to its older sister Ceylon for help and probably, the then Governor of the Straits Settlements secured the despatch to Perak of the 2nd division of the Ceylon Pioneer Corp. "So it fell to the Ceylonese to survey the railways and to build and man them, to be apothecaries in the hospitals, to be technical assistants to qualified engineers and to staff the clerical services on which an expanding government was bound increasingly to depend.

In Kuala Lumpur, the Ceylon Tamil population was mainly concentrated in Brickfields and Sentul because of the proximity of the Administrative Centre of the Malayan Railway (opposite the railway station) and the Sentul Workshop. The Government provided accommodation for the white and the blue collar workers in these areas. The Ceylon Tamils living in both these areas were devout Saivites and as they fervently believed that "no one should live in a place that has no Temple ", they soon began to organize themselves into Associations. This gave birth to the Sri Kandaswamy Kovil, Brickfields, which has become a landmark and tourist attraction in the city, showcasing Sri Lankan Tamil and Hindu architecture at its finest.

Many of the first Asian and non-white doctors and engineers in Malaya and Singapore were of Sri Lankan Tamil descent. The world's first Asian surgeon was Dr S.S. Thiruchelvam, a Malayan of Ceylonese Tamil origin.

Former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew once said:

In terms of numbers, the Ceylonese, like the Eurasians, are among the smallest of our various communities. Yet in terms of achievements and contributions to the growth and development of the modern Singapore and Malaysia they have done more than warranted by their numbers. In the early days of Malaysia's and Singapore's history the civil service and the professions were manned by a good number of Ceylonese. Even today the Ceylonese community continues to play a prominent role in these and other fields of civil life.

For example in Singapore, today, the Speaker of Parliament is a Ceylonese. So is our High Commissioner in Great Britain. So is our Foreign Minister. In the Judiciary, in the civil service, in the university, in the medical Service and in the professions they continue to make substantial contributions out of all proportion to their numbers. They are there not because they are members of a minority community but on the basis of merit.

The point is that the Ceylonese are holding their own in open competition with communities far larger than them. They have asked for no special favour or consideration as a minority. What they have asked for – and quite rightly – is that they should be judged on their merits and that they be allowed to compete with all other citizens fairly and without discrimination. This, as far as the Singapore government is concerned, is what is best for all of us. I believe that the future belongs to that society which acknowledges and rewards ability, drive and high performance without regard to race, language or religion.

The Ceylonese community established many schools, banks, cultural societies, cooperatives and temples in Malaysia and Singapore. Some good examples would be the Jaffnese Cooperative Society, Vivekananda Ashrama and the Vivekananda Tamil School in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur.In 1958 The Malaysian Ceylonese Congress was established as a political party with the aim of giving support to the then Alliance party. MCC has continuously supported the Barisan Nasional and the Government. It was formed to promote and preserve the Political, Educational, Social and Cultural aspects of the Malaysian Ceylonese Community. To date MCC has seen six President's :- 1. Mr. M.W Navaratnam AMN,JP (1958–1969) 2. Senator Tan Sri Datuk Dr. C.Sinnadurai PSD,PNBS,DPMP,MN,SMK,SMB,PJK (1970–1983) 3. Tan Sri Dato' Seri V.Jeyaratnam PSM,SPM,STP,JP (1983–1987) 4. Dato' Dr N.Arumugasamy DSIJ,JSM (1988–1995) 5. Dato' Dr D.M.Thuraiappah SPM,AMN,ASA (1996–2003) 6. Dato 'Dr NKS Tharmaseelan DPTJ,PMC,ANS (2004–Present) Today MCC makes its way in this ever changing globe under the dynamic leadership of Dato Dr NKS Tharmaseelan. After 50years of hibernation MCC has now become visible.It must also be noted that it was only on the 27th of February 2009 was MCC formally registered with the Malaysian Election's Commission (SPR)

Many Ceylonese were also involved in the independence movements in Malaya and Singapore. In Singapore, there are many current and past ministers who are of Ceylonese Tamil in origin and Tamil is a national language. Sinnathamby Rajaratnam was the former foreign minister and deputy prime minister of Singapore and regarded as one of the founding fathers of Singapore. His death in 2006 was marked with a state funeral by the government of Singapore. The Singapore flag was flown at half mast at all public buildings and former Prime Minister and friend Lee Kuan Yew cried when giving his eulogy.

Even today, the Sri Lankan community in Malaysia and Singapore is an upwardly mobile community taking up many professional and government posts. One of Malaysia's and South East Asia's richest men is billionaire Tan Sri Ananda Krishnan, who regularly makes it to Forbes magazine's billionaire list.

Before 1983

During the period post-independence and prior to Black July 1983, there was not much migration.

However, this changed as the government of Sri Lanka, which tended to be controlled by Sinhalese started introducing policies, such as the Sinhala Only Act, which curtailed opportunities Tamils in Sri Lanka.

Before 1956, Tamils were proportionately over-represented in the civil service because of their high achievement and perceived preferential treatment by the Colonial Rulers. Until 1956, this was their passport to government employment. As Cheran (2000: 110) argues, "[t]he class dimension of the Sinhala Only Act must not be forgotten. The battle of the languages was in reality a battle for government jobs." Unemployment among [the majority] Sinhala youth generated considerable political pressure for the government to act in a manner that ironically consolidated identity based on nation, despite the economic antecedents to such identity formation. Although the Sinhala Only Act was partially repealed in 1959, it did not stop Tamils leaving Sri Lanka searching for better employment opportunities.

After 1983 (The Scattering)

The eruption of the civil conflict in Sri Lanka between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam saw mass migration of Tamils to escape the hardships and bitter life of a country torn at war. (See also Black July.)

Initially, it was professionals such as doctors and engineers who emigrated. This was followed by the poorer segments of the community who sold everything they had to be able to get a passport and ticket and seek asylum in foreign lands. The bitter ethnic fighting in Sri Lanka had driven over 800,000 Sri Lankan Tamils from their homeland, forcing them to find refuge around the globe.


Main article: Sri Lankan Australian

Among the first Sri Lankan immigrants to Australia were those recruited to work on the cane plantations of northern Queensland in the late 19th century. There are also reports of Sri Lankan workers in the gold-mining regions of New South Wales and the pearling industry in Broome, Western Australia. Estimates of numbers during this time range from 500 to 1,000 persons; the 1901 Australian Census recorded 609 Sri Lanka-born.

There was no significant migration from Sri Lanka before 1948, when the country gained independence from Britain. When the Sinhalese began to assert the power of their majority, however, many Burghers or English-speakers of Sri Lankan - European descent and Tamils began to migrate to other countries.

Following implementation of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, which introduced policies excluding non-Europeans from entry to Australia, those of non-European appearance were precluded from entry. Thus the Burghers alone were allowed to enter Australia.

In the early 1970s, the restrictions on entry of non-Europeans were eased and a new wave of Tamils, Sinhalese and Burghers entered the country. Between 1961 and 1971, the Sri Lanka-born population rose from 3,433 to 9,091 and again to 22,516 by the time of the 1986 Census.

In the period of 1986 - 1996, the Sri Lanka-born community in Australia has doubled in size. The upsurge of migration from Sri Lanka has resulted from the continuing conflict between Tamil separatists and the Sri Lankan Government. The number of humanitarian entrants has increased since the introduction in January 1995 of the Special Assistance Category (SAC) Class 215 for Sri Lankans. The most recent wave of migrants to Australia includes Sinhalese Buddhists and Tamil Hindus who have strong cultural and political consciousness. Since 1991, there has also seen significant migration from Sri Lanka under the Family Migration, Onshore Protection, and Skilled Migration categories.

Census 2006 recorded a Sri Lankan population in Australia at 70,908. Census estimated the people who use Tamil at home as 32,700 and who use Sinhalese at home as 29,055. Sydney has 53,000 Indians and 18,000 Sri Lankans.

Census 2001 recorded 53,610 Sri Lanka-born persons in Australia, an increase of 14 per cent from 1996. The 2001 distribution by State and Territory showed Victoria had the largest number with 26,670 followed by New South Wales (16,910), Queensland (3,990) and Western Australia (2,970).

In 2001, of Sri Lanka-born people aged 15 years and over, 57.1 per cent held some form of educational or occupational qualification compared with 46.2 per cent for all Australians. Among the Sri Lanka born, 37.2 per cent had higher qualifications and 10.3 per cent had certificate level qualifications. Of the Sri Lanka-born with no qualifications, 24.9 per cent were still attending an educational institution.

Among Sri Lanka-born people aged 15 years and over, the participation rate in the labour force was 67.5 per cent and the unemployment rate was 7.9 per cent. The corresponding rates in the total Australian population were 63.0 and 7.4 per cent respectively. Of the 30,500 Sri Lanka-born who were employed, 51.7 per cent were employed in a Skilled occupation, 30.8 per cent in Semi-Skilled and 17.4 per cent in Unskilled. The corresponding rates in the total Australian population were 52.6, 28.9 and 18.6 per cent respectively.


Main article: Tamil Canadians

Tamil Canadian or Canadian Tamils have the largest Sri Lankan Tamil population outside of Sri Lanka and India with approximately 145,000 people according to the most recent census of both Statistics Canada and the OECD (dated 2011). The Greater Toronto Area (GTA) has the largest concentration of Sri Lankans (mainly Tamils) in Canada. Canadians of Tamil ethnic origins mostly from Sri Lanka and other countries such as India, Malaysia, South Africa, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and Fiji. From a population of fewer than 2,000 Tamils in 1983, it has become an important minority population groups within the GTA. More than 25,000 were added between 1984 and 1992; in the 1991 census, Tamils were the fastest-growing ethnic group in Metropolitan Toronto.

The Tamils of Toronto and the rest of Canada are well versed and many own businesses, such as stores, supermarkets, restaurants, and even other franchise restaurants. They also tend to be highly educated and many work as real estate agents, lawyers, doctors and bankers. The Tamil peoples biggest population consists of the younger Tamil generations of the ages of 14 to 28, with most of them being students.[12][13][14]

Expatriate Sri Lankan Tamil children in traditional clothes in Toronto


Main article: Tamil Germans
Sri Kamadchi Ampal temple in Hamm, Germany

Religious fervor among Tamil Germans intensified as their numbers swelled. Due to the inspirational encouragement of Hawaii Subramaniaswami – the disciple of Yoga Swamigal – two well organized Hindu temples – Sidhivinayagar Kovil and the kamadchi Amman Kovil –have in place in the city of Hamm since 1984. According to the journal Hinduism Today, the youth are being well trained in their religion and culture at home and in weekend schools in rented halls using texts from Sri Lanka. They even wear Hindu symbols of Vibuthi and Tilakam.[15]


Celebrations of Ganesh by the Sri Lankan Tamil community in Paris, France

Over 100,000 Sri Lankan Tamils living in France

In only 10 years, "Little Jaffna", located at the last stretch of the winding street of Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis in the 10th arrondissement, between metros Gare de Nord and La Chapelle, has sprung to life and begun to truly flourish. It is commonly mistakenly called by the average Parisian as Little Bombay.

The vast majority of Parisian Tamils fled Sri Lanka as refugees in the 1980s, escaping the violent civil conflict. The French Prefecture was initially quite reluctant about granting asylum to Tamils. In 1987, the Office for the Protection of Refugees (OFPRA) gained in power and opened up a period of nearly systematic asylum. This liberal period eventually tapered off in the 90s as a result of new European measures designed against an influx in immigration. Today, there are about 100,000 Sri Lankan Tamils living in France, of which the greatest number live in Paris. Little Jaffna is also famous for the annual chariot procession held during Ganesha Chathurthi. Both the area and event have become popular tourist attractions.

Other European countries

Switzerland has about 50,000 Tamils, the majority of whom are from Sri Lanka who have gone as refugees. Temples, cultural festivals, international conferences, seminars and meetings draw a large number of the Tamil Diaspora from other European countries to the various Swiss cities, so much so that it has become the nerve centre of Tamil cultural activism. Tamil language classes, dance and music classes run by voluntary bodies are fast increasing. First Generations of Sri Lankan-Tamils majority work in Restaurant and overtook through their hard work the role as chef cook, Restaurant management, serving Customers. The recognition earned as honest, hard working people throughout the country. Second generation has completed well educated skilled force to Swiss economy, working in finance, bank, Insurance,management. Large community established in Zurich with a place known as little Jaffna. Kanton Basel, Bern. Geneva.Most of the Tamils do reside in German part of Switzerland.

Netherlands has more than 20,000 Tamils, the majority of whom are refugees from Sri Lanka.

Norway has about 13,000 Tamils, most of whom are Sri Lankan refugees. Around 7000 live in the capital Oslo.

Sweden has a Tamil population of about 2,000 which is of recent origin.

Denmark has over 7,000 Tamils, the majority being refugees. There are two well-patronized Hindu temples – one for Vinayagar and another for Abhirami – and the Tamil population has got well adapted to the Danish environment.[16]

See also


  1. Foster, Carly (2007). "Tamils: Population in Canada". Ryerson University. Retrieved 2008-06-25. According to government figures, there are about 300,000 Tamils in Canada
  2. "Britain urged to protect Tamil Diaspora". BBC. 2006-03-26. Retrieved 2008-06-26. According to HRW, there are about 120,000 Sri Lankan Tamils in the UK.
  3. Acharya, Arunkumar (2007). "Ethnic conflict and refugees in Sri Lanka" (PDF). Autonomous University of Nuevo Leon. Retrieved 2008-07-01.
  4. "Politically French, culturally Tamil: 12 Tamils elected in Paris and suburbs". Tamilnet. 2008-03-28. Retrieved 2008-06-26. Around 125,000 Tamils are estimated to be living in France. Of them, around 50,000 are Eezham Tamils (Sri Lankan Tamils).
  5. Baumann, Martin (2008). "Immigrant Hinduism in Germany: Tamils from Sri Lanka and Their Temples". Harvard university. Retrieved 2008-06-26. Since the escalation of the Sinhalese-Tamil conflict in Sri Lanka during the 1980s, about 60,000 came as asylum seekers.
  6. "Swiss Tamils look to preserve their culture". Swissinfo. 2006-02-18. Retrieved 2008-06-25. An estimated 35,000 Tamils now live in Switzerland.
  7. Rajakrishnan, P. Social Change and Group Identity among the Sri Lankan Tamils, pp. 541557
  8. "History of Tamil diaspora". Tamil library. Retrieved 2008-03-17.
  9. Raman, B. (2000-07-20). "Sri Lanka: The dilemma". The Hindu. Retrieved 2008-06-26. It is estimated that there are about 10,000 Sri Lankan Tamils in Norway -- 6,000 of them Norwegian citizens, many of whom migrated to Norway in the 1960s and the 1970s to work on its fishing fleet; and 4,000 post-1983 political refugees.
  10. Mortensen, V. Theology and the Religions: A Dialogue, p. 110
  11. Schalk, P. (2002). "Ilavar and Lankans, Emerging Identities in a Fragmented Island" (PDF). Asian Ethnicity. 3 (1): 47–62. doi:10.1080/14631360120095865. Retrieved 2008-06-22.
  12. Cheran, R (2000). "Changing Formations: Tamil Nationalism and National Liberation in Sri Lanka and the Diaspora". Ph.D. dissertation. Department of Sociology, York University.
  13. Jennifer Hyndman (2000). "Aid, conflict and migration: the Canada Sri Lanka connection" (PDF). Department of Geography, Simon Fraser University. Retrieved 2007-08-31.
  14. Sriskandarajah, Dhananjayan (2005). "Diaspora politics". Springer US. Retrieved 2007-08-31.

Further reading


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