Aran Mylvaganam arrived unaccompanied at Sydney International Airport when he was just 13 years old. He couldn’t speak English but, like every refugee, understood the word “visa”. And when immigration officials asked for his, he knew he couldn’t give them one.
Australia was only a year into John Howard’s long prime ministership. Aran had fled the war in Sri Lanka. He now entered a country with a brewing political conflict of its own—one in which refugees would be at the centre of debate. He was transferred to the Villawood detention centre, where he stayed for three months.
“There was a conversation happening at that time about refugees and foreigners coming into this country”, Aran says. “It was the time when Pauline Hanson was becoming popular. There was so much fear in the migrant community at that time that Hanson was going to kick every Asian out of the country. You could see the conversation happening in the community as well, and people were worried.”
Aran had lived in Tamil Eelam, the homelands of the Tamil people in the north and east of Sri Lanka. “I was born into war”, he says, describing successive waves of pogroms and military violence perpetrated against his people by the Sri Lankan government and Indian troops. The entirety of Tamil Eelam has been under Sri Lankan occupation since 2009.
The 2013 documentary No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka gives an idea of the scale of the atrocities committed against Tamils in the closing months of the military conflict. Decades of oppression and violence against the Tamils resulted in armed resistance and the founding of a national liberation movement led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (known as the Tamil Tigers).
The Tigers controlled an autonomous region across much of Tamil Eelam through the 1990s and into the 2000s. But it was destroyed by a major Sri Lankan military offensive from late 2008 to early 2009.
During that offensive, Sri Lankan authorities created so-called no fire zones, directing hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians to shelter in them for safety. But the zones were then shelled, reduced in size and moved, and then shelled again—funnelling survivors into ever smaller killing fields.
When United Nations workers sent their coordinates to the Sri Lankan government to try to ensure the safety and security of aid operations, they too were attacked. Makeshift hospitals were shelled. New ones were hastily set up and shelled again, until the International Committee of the Red Cross decided to stop providing the Sri Lankan government the coordinates of the hospitals, which had been attacked approximately 65 times.
Ten of thousands of Tamil civilians were massacred over a period of a few months. No Fire Zone is evidence that the government and military perpetrated the most barbaric of war crimes—for which they still have paid no price.
But the tactic was not news for Tamils, or for Aran. In 1995, when Aran was 11, the Sri Lankan Air Force dropped leaflets over his village. The leaflets instructed civilians to shelter in schools, churches and temples if fighting broke out, which it did a few days later.
“The people followed their directions, but they bombed our school. That particular day I lost my brother and three cousins”, Aran says.
“It wasn’t just one bomb. One bomb fell and we all ran. As we were running, bombs were dropped on the tamarind tree that was in front of my house where lots of people were hiding. It was a big tree with a big canopy you could hide under, and so it was bombed by the Sri Lankan Air Force. In Sri Lanka, we all wore white uniforms, so it’s not like they couldn’t see these were school kids.
“From there onwards I was basically on the move, moving from one place to another internally. By 1997 my family had decided to get all the young kids out of the country.”
Some of Aran’s young family members made it to Europe, some died on the way. His 17-year-old older brother made it to Australia a few months before Aran and was detained in Maribyrnong detention centre in Melbourne. After they were both released, they lived with other refugees in Dandenong. It took three and a half years and a community campaign for the Australian government to allow him and his brother to be reunited with their parents, a right of family reunion that refugees were entitled to at the time.
Amid the ongoing decline of refugee rights in Australia, Tamils felt a particular moment of desperation and concern following the 2009 massacre. The Labor government, which had committed its full support to the Sri Lankan regime, began targeting Tamil refugees.
The situation led Aran and prominent sports journalist Trevor Grant to establish the Tamil Refugee Council in 2011.
“The Labor government on the one hand were aiding the Sri Lankan government, coming up with statements of support and providing financial and diplomatic support to the war criminals. At the same time, Tamils who fled the genocide in 2009 and came to this country were treated very differently”, he says.
“Refugees in general were treated very badly by the Labor government. But when it came to Tamil asylum seekers, they gave them negative security assessments. Julia Gillard introduced an enhanced screening process, and a lot of people were handed over to the Sri Lankan authorities without their claims even being assessed.
“It was also around the time that Scott Morrison, Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop, while they were in opposition, were visiting Sri Lanka quite regularly and making statements to support the Sri Lankan government.”
For the past decade, the Tamil Refugee Council has campaigned relentlessly against Australia’s anti-refugee politics. A flashpoint for the organisation has been the campaign to free the Murugappan family from Biloela, Queensland—Priya, Nades, Kopika and Tharnicaa—who Aran has come to know well over their three years of detention.
The Tamil Refugee Council was founded, Aran says, because Tamils knew they had no friends in parliament. They had to try to mobilise the broader community behind them.
It’s the same rationale he says is behind his campaign leading the Victorian Socialists federal election ticket: there are no reliable friends of refugees or workers in Australia’s ruling parties. The only way to challenge them is to build a movement of our own.
“I’m running for the Senate with the Victorian Socialists because I believe that we haven’t got politicians in Canberra who actually speak for the majority of Australians”, he says.
“The majority of Australians have been taken for a ride for many years by both major political parties. Whether it’s our rights at work, whether it’s action on climate change, refugee rights, the rights of women—both major political parties have contributed to the problems.
“The solution to this is not to elect more politicians who will end up being a voice for the ruling class; it’s electing politicians who will be a voice for the working people, a voice for the oppressed, and who have a track record of advocating for those people.”
The Senate is filled with politicians who have constructed Australia’s refugee detention regime and who claim that Sri Lanka is safe for Tamils. The policies they write and vote for are designed to crush the spirit of refugees and their supporters and—in words Aran has spoken at many protests—to divide working-class people, keeping them poorer so the rich can grow richer.
But Aran has never given up. And he put his beliefs into action, working as a trade union organiser to fight for a better deal for all workers and to build solidarity between all oppressed groups.
“Over the past 20 years, I fled a war that in many ways served the interests of global powers”, he says. “I came to this country as a refugee, lived here below the poverty line, struggled to get three meals a day but managed to get into university. Once I entered the workforce, I fought for workers’ rights, became a union organiser and continued to do that work while fighting for refugee rights.
“I believe I’ve got the proven track record to be a genuine voice for people.”