Remembering Black July: A Call to Join the Fight to Protect Tamil and All Asylum Seekers in the US

The legacy of the gruesome state-sponsored riots against Tamils lives on today as state violence against innocent Tamils. As our racist government denies asylum claims to vulnerable people fleeing violence, we need your help to provide safety to Tamil and all asylum seekers in the US.

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Sinhala rioters celebrate as they pause in the destruction of homes and businesses in Tamil sectors of Colombo (via Tamil Guardian)

Every July, the Eelam Tamil community around the world commemorates the anniversary of “Black July,” and mourns the tragic loss of lives in the series of pogroms sponsored by the Sri Lankan government against the Tamil minority in 1983. The pogroms killed over 3,000 Tamils, displaced another 150,000, and kicked off the violent 26-year war and Tamil genocide. Families were burned alive and over 500 Tamil women were raped. Fearing further violence following the riots, more than 500,000 Tamils fled their island nation home. Many fled to countries like the United States as asylum seekers, but with the changes encouraged by President Donald Trump’s administration, asylum is now in danger of being effectively eliminated.

The majority Sinhalese Buddhist people in Sri Lanka have historically claimed supremacy over Tamils and other minorities, a fact that is even chronicled in their ancient text, the Mahavamsa. The tension between the Sinhalese and the minorities was exacerbated by British colonizers, who exploited their ethnic and religious differences to pit the groups against each other. During post-colonial independence, members of the majority Sinhalese Buddhists codified Sinhalese nationalism into Sri Lanka’s constitution and formation of the state. Immediately following independence, the Sinhalese nationalist government passed many acts discriminating against Tamils and other non-Sinhalese minorities, including denying Tamil people access to government jobs and denying Tamil students equal access to education and employment that were available to their Sinhala peers. Through these means of oppression and subjugation, Tamils have been reduced to second-class citizens by the Sri Lankan government for the 72 years since independence.

It is through this lens that we must review the events leading up to Black July. In April 1983, the Sri Lankan government and other state actors detained and tortured many Tamil human rights activists, political activists, and militants. In July of that year, the government censored the main newspapers reporting on this violence and the Sri Lankan army committed multiple acts of sexual violence against Tamil women. On July 23, 1983, the Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the militant organization fighting for an independent homeland for Tamils, killed 13 Sri Lankan soldiers in an ambush. The next day, violence against Tamils spread across the country as Sinhalese mobs, armed with voter registration lists from government officials, targeted and attacked their Tamil neighbors. Further, the Sri Lankan army actively encouraged arson and looting of Tamil business establishments and homes. Later that year, the International Commission of Jurists wrote that “the evidence points clearly to the conclusion that the violence of the Sinhala rioters on the Tamils amounted to acts of genocide.”

The armed conflict in Sri Lanka between the LTTE and the Sri Lanka government continued through May 2009. Having expelled international organizations and journalists, then-president Mahinda Rajapaksa declared victory after his army herded up to 140,000 Tamils civilians into government-designated “safe zones” and murdered them by intentionally bombing those areas. In a recent article for Opinion Juris, Tasha Manorajan, lawyer and founder of People Advocating for Equality and Relief in Lanka (PEARL), a nonprofit organization advocating for Tamils in Sri Lanka, makes a strong legal argument that the Sri Lankan government committed acts of genocide against the Tamil minority.

Though the armed conflict is over, Tamils in Sri Lanka continue to be marginalized and subject to violence by the government. Tamils face alarming rates of militarization of their lands and surveillance of their lives, as well as “Sinhalization,” where the government resettles Sinhalese people in Tamil-dominant areas to make Tamils the minority there. The Sri Lankan government continues to terrorize the Tamil minority with forcible disappearances by kidnapping and torturing innocent Tamils, leaving their families with no information on their whereabouts or release dates. Over ten years after the war, the government has accepted no accountability for their war crimes and military leaders who oversaw violence against Tamils are back in power, tightening the authoritarian grip of the state.

Many Tamils who became subjects of state violence fled as refugees, seeking asylum in the West. Traditionally, the United States was a global leader in welcoming and resettling refugees. However, the current administration, fueled by white supremacy, has been waging a war on asylum since Trump took office. The administration claims it is working to stop the abuse of the asylum system by preventing meritless claims, but research shows that the asylum system is rarely abused.

Trump’s administration has been proposing many policy changes to the current asylum system as it has existed for decades, including restricting who can be granted asylum, limiting whether they can stay in the US while their claim is reviewed, and removing minimum standards for the treatment of children, among others. One notable case that reached the US Supreme Court last month was that of Vijayakumar Thuraissigiam, who was abducted, beaten, subject to simulated drowning, and had his life threatened by Sri Lankan government officers — simply for supporting a Tamil politician. Thuraissigiam sought asylum in the United States, but his case officer felt that the case did not meet the elements necessary for a credible fear of persecution, despite the facts of his case fitting a pattern of well-documented human rights violations against Tamils in Sri Lanka. In June 2020, the US Supreme Court ruled that Thuraissigiam would not have his case reviewed, denying him due process. This ruling handed a win to the Trump administration’s assault on asylum, and a death sentence to Thuraissigiam by allowing him to be deported back to the same country that tortured him.

The Trump administration has also begun replacing asylum officers with Border Patrol agents who are approving significantly reduced amounts of approved asylum claims (35%) compared to those approved by traditional asylum officers (57%) in the same period. Border Patrol agents are hired and trained to arrest and detain immigrants, making them unfit for the neutral, professional role of asylum officers. The Border Patrol agency also has a history of abusing detained immigrants. Lee Gelernt, an ACLU lawyer who represented Thuraissigiam, advised that “the need for judicial oversight has increased dramatically because the Trump administration has so eviscerated the protections in the underlying asylum hearings.” Unfortunately, the Supreme Court ruling against Thuraissigiam paves the way for far less judicial oversight.

The Supreme Court ruling on Thuraissigiam is one element of a three-part coordinated attack on asylum by the US government in the past month. First, this ruling impacts all people apprehended for expedited removal (a process created for low-level immigration offices to quickly deport non-citizens), as they now are denied rights to contest in federal court. This was one of the last avenues of accountability for those seeking asylum. The second part of the attack occurred in June of this year, when courts upheld a federal rule to expand expedited removal for anyone who can’t prove they’ve been in the US for at least two years (an increase from two weeks) that would subject “hundreds of thousands” of asylum seekers to expedited removal.

The third part of this coordinated attack on asylum is now pending: the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice has proposed a rule to amend our current asylum law that would significantly restrict who would qualify for asylum. In a public comment on the proposed rule, the Human Rights Watch said that the proposed rule “would radically change the definition of a ‘particular social group,’ making it virtually impossible for a person who is a member of a social group other than the four specified in the refugee definition (i.e. race, religion, nationality, and political opinion) from ever qualifying for asylum.” In other words, the proposed rule would radically narrow the definition of “refugee” — a definition that is purposefully broad to cover the wide range of people in need of protection. Many asylum seekers today who are fleeing gang violence or attacks due to their gender or sexuality would not be included in the updated definition. The union representing federal asylum officers said in their public comment that the proposed rule would effectively deny most migrants pursuing asylum the right to have their claims of fear or persecution assessed.

It must be emphasized: every migrant has a legal right to apply for asylum in the US once they step foot on the country’s soil, whether they entered legally or not. As the current administration replaces asylum officers with unqualified Border Patrol officers, many valid asylum claims are being denied, many more will see expedited removal, and none of those asylum seekers will be able to have their cases reviewed. The US’s established refugee law, the US Refugee Act of 1980, borrows its definition of “refugee” from the United Nations 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees: a person who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her home country, and cannot obtain protection in that country, due to past persecution or a well-founded fear of being persecuted in the future “on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” Thus, by our own laws, the US is legally obligated to provide protection to those who qualify as refugees. To restrict this qualification and turn away vulnerable asylum seekers is not only a violation of our current legal obligations, it is the opposite of the beacon of hope for persecuted groups that the US claims to be.

My parents, like many Tamils in their generation, fled their home in Sri Lanka after facing violence and government persecution. My father survived the Black July riots in Colombo by hiding in refugee camps for ten days. During that time, he feared for his life and watched other Tamil people be burned alive in front of him. He sought safety and peace in the US, in New York City, where the Statue of Liberty greeted him with Emma Lazarus’s words: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” All people fleeing violence and persecution should be able to seek and receive the same security in the US that I have grown up knowing.

The inhumane proposed rule aims to rewrite our asylum law and restrict protections for the most vulnerable, making stories like my parents’ impossible. But the proposed rule has not yet come into effect, and a coalition of determined activists are organizing against it. This year has shown us the power of regular people mobilizing against injustice. As we march for Black Lives Matter, let’s also fight to protect the Afro-descendant and Indigenous asylum seekers who face unique additional discrimination and are disproportionately impacted in their search for safety.

In the face of a racist and oppressive government, we need all hands on deck in the fight for justice. This is an international call to action. You can help our campaign even if you live outside the US. Join us — organizers, groups, and regular people — in the movement by filling out the form here: Together, we can work to keep asylum seekers safe.

Written by

queer Tamil activist @ CUNY Law — PEARL Advocacy team — founding member Communities Advocating for Progress (CAP) — comic & producer for Sanniyans show

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