Sri Lankan immigration
Sri Lanka is a 25,000-square-mile island in the Indian Ocean, at some points less than 20 miles off the southeast coast of India. In 2002, the population was estimated at 19,408,635. The people are ethnically divided between two main groups, the Sinhalese (74 percent) and the Tamil (18 percent). Roughly corresponding to the ethnic distinctions is the religious division of the population, with 69 percent being Buddhist and 15 percent Hindu, as well as eight percent Christian and eight percent Muslim. During the fifth century B.C., Sinhalese arrived from the mainland, establishing a kingdom and converting to Buddhism during the third century B.C. Invading Tamils from the Madras area of India conquered much of the Sinhalese territory starting in the 11th century. The island was divided between the two groups when the Portuguese arrived early in the 16th century. The Dutch conquered the island in the 17th century, and the English captured it in 1795, thus initiating a long period of British rule, under which the island was known as Ceylon.
Sri Lankan immigration began during the period of British colonial ascendancy, particularly after 1867, when large numbers of agricultural laborers were recruited throughout British India. From the late 18th century until 1947, British India included all the territory from modern Pakistan to Burma. The exact number of Sri Lankan immigrants is difficult to determine, as the term Indian was applied to more than a dozen ethnic groups, including the Sinhalese and Tamils of Ceylon (see Indian immigration). Significant Sri Lankan immigration did not begin until independence in 1948, when many educated Tamils and Sinhalese began to leave as the country moved toward socialism. The immigration of doctors and engineers often exceeded the numbers being trained each year in those fields. At first, most migrated to Great Britain; during the 1970s, the United States and Australia became popular destinations.
In 1951, Canada initiated a quota system for South Asian immigrants, including a provision for 50 Sri Lankans annually. In the early 1960s, the Sri Lankan government recognized the significant drain of skilled workers from the country and launched a series of measures to severely restrict emigration. Beginning in 1977, it reversed policy, especially encouraging unskilled and semi-skilled workers to seek labor opportunities outside the country. This both alleviated problems associated with domestic poverty and led to the remittance of foreign currencies. Although Sri Lanka abolished legal discrimination against the Tamils in 1978, riots and disturbances became more common, further pushing those with skills and education to seek opportunities in the West. By the mid-1980s, there were still only about 5,000 Sri Lankans of various ethnic groups in Canada. As the civil conflict between the Sinhalese and rebel Tamils evolved into full-scale civil war in 1983, the economy was destroyed, and the island appeared to become permanently divided, thus giving impetus to significant migration. Of Canada’s 87,310 Sri Lankan immigrants in 2001, almost 96 percent came between 1981 and 2001. In 2001 and 2002, Sri Lanka was second only to Afghanistan in the number of refugees admitted. The civil war continued off and on in 2003 and early 2004.
Significant Sri Lankan immigration to the United States did not begin until the 1950s and even then remained small. In 1980, the Sri Lankan–American population was less than 200. As the civil war developed, however, almost 16,000 Sri Lankans immigrated to the United States by 2000. In 2001 and 2002, about 1,500 Sri Lankans immigrated each year. Tamils and Sinhalese account for about equal percentages of immigrants.
See also Bangladeshi immigration; Pakistani immigration; South Asian immigration.