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Marking 40 Years of the Tamil Diaspora in Switzerland

An event commemorating the 40-year-old history of the Tamil diaspora in Switzerland took place in Bern last week, marking their journey to the country, as well as the growth and challenges they faced since arrival.

The first Tamil refugees arrived in Switzerland 40 years ago, escaping the horrors of the anti-Tamil Black July pogroms and the escalation of armed conflict in Sri Lanka. With an estimated 60,000 members, Eelam Tamils are one of the largest diaspora groups in Switzerland today.

Over 400 people gathered at the inter-cultural House of Religions in Bern for the full-day event organised by various members of the Swiss Tamil Diaspora.

The event started with a minute of silence, followed by speeches from members of the Tamil diaspora, as well as from Swiss activists and officials, who all accompanied Tamil refugees during their first years in Switzerland in the 1980s.

One of the speakers was Mario Gattiker, former Director of the Swiss Migration Office, who worked as an asylum lawyer in the 1980s, who spoke about one of the most critical times during his term when Sri Lankan security forces arrested and tortured a deported Tamil asylum seeker. Switzerland was later condemned by the Europan Court for Human Rights.  

Moderator Suba Umathevan, Assembly Member of the ICRC, spoke to a diverse group of Tamils who shared their experiences as refugees and the rebuilding of their lives in Switzerland; most of them fled from the Black July pogroms in the 1980s or after the Mullivaikkal massacre in 2009. Dr Pathipan Kandasamy from the Tamil Education Service Switzerland spoke about the large network of Tamil schools in Switzerland and how third- and even fourth-generation Tamil children in Switzerland are learning their mother tongue.

The morning ended with a video statement from Dr Madura Rasaratnam, Associate Professor at City, University of London. She spoke about the Sri Lankan economic crisis and its connection to Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarianism.

The afternoon began with a panel on social inequalities in and outside the Tamil Diaspora. Shiami Thayalakumar, a trainee teacher, moderated the event with the speakers Aarusza Ramachandran, educational scientist; Dr Damaris Lüthi, social anthropologist; and Vithyaah Subramaniam, Co-President of the Office for Migration and Racism Issues Bern.

The panel talked about systematic racism, the intersectionality of discrimination and the difficulties of having Tamil voices speaking for themselves in public fora.

Jathuram Thirumalmarukan, entrepreneur and coordinator of Phoenix TNG, led a workshop on the complex topics of social insurance and retirement, where he was flooded with questions from the first generation of Tamils who are now confronted with these problems.

Simultaneously, another panel was held by the Tamil Economic Forum (TEF) on the economic situation of the Tamils in the diaspora and the homeland, and how Tamils can strengthen their engagement for new projects. The panel was moderated by Pirakash Vivekananthan, President of TEF, with the speakers Januthan Logathas, Entrepreneur; Sri Rasamanickam, President of Tamil Rise Europe; Subash Sundarraj, CEO of the World Action Foundation and Suba Umathevan, CEO of Drosos Foundation.

Another panel examined the difficult issues regarding death in exile, moderated by Anina Manivannan, Coordinator at Amnesty International, in conversation with Sinthujan Varatharajah, political geographer and author, and Sasikumar Tharmalingam, a priest at the Sivan Temple in the House of Religions and counsellor. They discussed the different ways Tamils mourn, how funeral rites changed over time and how states dictate the methods of death and mourning.

Tama Vakeesan, host at the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, moderated a panel on health and age. She was joined by the speakers, Hildegard Hungerbühler, gerontologist; Jeyakumar Thurairajah, nursing specialist and President of the health association Nalavalvu; Matthias Rauh, Social educator and specialist on substance abuse; and Dr Suvetha Gnanapiragasam, assistant doctor.

They raised awareness of the different health issues of elderly Tamils and how to tackle the problems. They also discussed old-age poverty, codependency and the need for Tamil-specific information and structures.

The last panel of the day reflected on the political situation 40 years after Black July and 15 years after Mullivaikkal and how, 75 years after the creation of the Sri Lankan state, Eelam Tamils are still pursuing self-determination.

Sagi Thilipkumar, PEARL advocacy officer and lawyer, moderated the panel with the speakers Mario Arulthas, PhD Candidate and former Advocacy Director at PEARL, Martin Stürzinger, journalist and former staff member of the Peace and Human Rights Division at the Swiss Foreign Office, Sowmya Maheswaran, anthropologist and PhD Candidate from Berlin, and Nivethan Nanthakumar, journalist and PuradsiMedia Coordinator at Phoenix TNG.

The panel spoke on the ongoing struggle of the Eelam Tamil people for justice and self-determination, as well as agreeing on the profound problem of Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarianism on the island. Sowmya Maheswaran spoke about the stark militarisation of the Tamil homeland by the Sri Lankan state despite the economic crisis. Martin Stürzinger spoke about his experiences as a tourist in Sri Lanka during the Black July pogroms and the missed opportunity for structural changes during the Aragalya last year. Mario Arulthas explained the transnational success of Tamil nationalism and how it is consistently challenging Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarianism. Nivethan Nanthakumar spoke about the hypocrisy of Western states like Switzerland, which continue to deport Tamils back to Sri Lanka despite human rights violations and the ongoing issues faced by the Tamils in the homeland, including Sinhalization and State repression.

During the whole day, visitors were able to experience different exhibitions.

Personal Items of Tamil refugees were displayed. Rupees from the mother or the first dictionary in Switzerland were showcased - to name a few.

Multiple news articles from the 1980s describe the immense difficulties Tamils had to face in Swiss exile, including the constant danger of being deported back to Sri Lanka. One article from the homeland showed how Tamils in Jaffna called for a boycott of Swiss goods in 1984 because of the ill-treatment of Tamil asylum-seekers. A film displayed old footage from Tamils on Swiss national TV. Visitors were invited to track their route from the island on a large world map, showing the different paths Tamils had to undertake to find safety in Switzerland.

An art exhibition on Tamil identity showcased different artworks from second generation Swiss-Tamils. At the photo exhibitions, photographer Vera Markus talked about her experiences accompanying Tamil families during their everyday lives in Switzerland. Tamil photojournalist Kumanan Kanapathipillai presented his photos from Tamil protests and Tamil resistance to state suppression in the homeland.

At the Tamilskalary library, an exhibition with information on the Black July pogroms was presented. Books on Tamils and the Tamil diaspora were displayed, including a forthcoming graphic novel on Black July by Adayaalam Centre for Policy Research.

More information on the "40 years" project can be found at swisstamildiaspora.ch and on Instagram here.


All photographs courtesy of Jay Sivanathan and Sagi Thilipkumar.

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