Tamil Refugees, S. C. Chandrahasan and OfERR

 I’ve noticed recently that Australian media have been quoting a man called S. C (Samuel Chelvanayagam)  Chandrahasan a lot recently.

ABC News on Sunday sought him out for an article on Sunday on Eric Abetz defending his government, for example:

Tamil refugee and advocate S C Chandrahasan says if Australia was to send the Tamils to Sri Lanka, it would act as a deterrent to others considering making the journey.

“We are having a map which says it is easier to go from Tamil Nadu to Sri Lanka than to go to Australia. [The map suggests asylum seekers who] get close to Christmas Island [will] then be deported, [go through a] mid-sea transfer and take the risk of going back,” he said.

Earlier last week, the Sydney Morning Herald quoted him in an article about the Australian Governments PR Campaign to stop Tamils leaving by boat from the subcontinent for Australia :

”This has been a brilliantly organised campaign,” said S.C. Chandrahasan, a leading Tamil refugee advocate who has worked closely with the Australian government over the past 12 months.

”The Australian government began in Delhi and has worked down, slowly and diligently, through every level of Indian government and refugee organisations to get the message through that if you get on a boat without a visa, you will be sent back to Sri Lanka.”

Mr Chandrahasan said one of his major concerns for Tamil refugees living in Tamil Nadu is that by leaving India through illegal means, they are giving up everything they have built up in India over the past 30 years.

”We have land here, we have homes, we have electricity, we have education, and every time someone gets on a boat to go to Australia without a visa, we are losing that, and that is what I am trying to prevent.”

The first thing I’d note is the uncritical use of “illegal” by SMH in the quote above. Of course, it is not illegal under the Refugee Convention to seek refuge by boat in another country. In fact, the Convention states that refugees will not be discriminated against by the mode by which they arrive.

But more broadly, the appearance of this mysterious figure has peaked my interest. Clearly he provides a useful voice to argue that the current government’s hardline attitude to Tamil refugees is working to provide an effective deterrent to help “stop the boats”.  Furthermore, he has the added appeal of being a Tamil advocate, and therefore not subject to claims of an uncaring or even cruel attitude towards them. All in all, a boon to the Coalition and their supporters.

So who is S. C. Chandrahasan?  

A little bit of google research reveals the following key facts:

1.  Mr Chandrahasan works for an organisation called OfERR, whose stated mission is to improve and develop the life and well being of refugees in Indiaand to prepare them for their eventual return to the Island” [my italilics].  “The Island” in this context means Sri Lanka.

2.  OefERR’s website reveals it is funded by a collection of international organisations.  Those organisations are predominantly Christian.  They include the National Council of Churches of  Australia and the Australian Government (including, interesting, the Arts Council?)

3.  If this article is anything to go by (published in a webzine by a man with some political interest in this issue – he says he’s a victim of LTTE (Tamil Tiger) violence) he’s runs a pretty good line in self-promotion and/or has some high up contacts in Indian government.

I’m not questioning Mr Ch’s integrity or suggesting he’s a fraud, I simply don’t know much about him, and nor do the readers of the ABC and the SMH.    

And that’s my point, I am left with several questions.  How reliable is he as a source?  Is he influenced by his Australian Government funding in the commentary he gives about Australian Government activity on asylum seekers? Should Australian media be using him as one of the primary sources of Tamil refugee advocacy with regards to Australian issues, considering his NGO is aimed towards returning Tamils from India to Sri Lanka?

I’d love to hear from any readers who could share light on this.