Swiss Tamils look to the future

Tamils feel at home in Switzerland Keystone

A year after the defeat of the Tamil secessionist movement in Sri Lanka, many Swiss Tamils have given up hope of returning and instead plan a future in Switzerland.

This content was published on June 4, 2010 minutes

There are some 43,000 Sri Lankan Tamils living in Switzerland; this figure does not include those who have already obtained Swiss citizenship. Fleeing the civil war at home, they came here in the 1980s and 1990s.

The Tamils have integrated well into Swiss society – at least superficially. They have shown themselves to be hardworking and many Tamil youngsters do well at school. The majority of Swiss value this and perceive the Tamils as being better integrated than some other immigrant groups.

On the other hand, the Tamils belong to a highly cohesive society with an ancient tradition. Their sense of belonging – whether to a caste or an extended family – is crucial to their identity. For this reason, they have formed tight-knit groups when settling in Switzerland, too. Arranged marriages are common, with families sending in brides from Sri Lanka for grooms living in Switzerland.

This means that the Tamils typically do not integrate socially into Swiss society. There are, of course, exceptions – young Tamils who have chosen to marry Swiss partners.

“The Tamils need to get interested in how the Swiss live,” says Puvi, an independent businessman in Basel who is married to a Swiss. “Ninety-nine per cent of the people I associate with now are Swiss. But for most of the Tamils, integration is a foreign word.”

A Swiss future

Many Swiss Tamils still hope for change in Sri Lanka. Others seem to be resigned to the situation there. But almost all see their future and the future of their children here in their adopted country.

“My children will soon be starting school,” explains Naren, a factory worker who lives in canton Basel-Land.

“They will grow up here, and their future is here. Meanwhile, we are in the process of getting Swiss citizenship. I have brothers in London and Canada. Only my parents are still at home now.”

“Are things ever going to get better in Sri Lanka?” he asks rhetorically. “I have been waiting for things to get better for the past 20 years. Now I have just about given up hoping! Things are actually worse in Sri Lanka than they were before. Even my parents tell me not to come back!”

Naren’s wife Nisha says, “I am happy here now, though in the beginning it was hard, because I came here all alone to be married and I no longer had all the usual contacts with my family. But now between us we have about 35 relatives in Switzerland.”

She has little motivation to return to her homeland. “There is fear in Sri Lanka,” she says simply.

Culture clash

“Tamils here try hard to pass on their culture to the young generation,” says Sri, a counsellor with an immigrant services agency in Basel. “There are Tamil language schools. If the young Tamils speak their mother tongue well, they will speak German better – even Swiss educational authorities say that.”

“At the same time, culture can be a problem. The children often don’t want to follow their elders,” says Sri.

“The young Tamils have different lives inside and outside the home. Adults over here can lose their direction, they can lose their own roots, sometimes they don’t feel accepted here. So you find alcohol problems and mental health problems, too.”

Arul, a businessman in his fifties, muses upon the effect of long-term residence in the alpine nation.

“Sometimes it seems to me that we Tamils in Switzerland have gradually become estranged from our own culture. Sri Lanka now seems like a foreign country – not just to the children, but to me and my wife, too, for we have been here for 27 years. We all have Swiss citizenship. And of course when you get citizenship here you lose your nationality in Sri Lanka.”

Political projects

In the meantime, the sizeable Tamil diaspora has started rallying around new political projects.

There has recently been voting in Tamil communities worldwide to elect a parliament in exile and a “Transnational government of Tamil Eelam” to be based in the United States. This body hopes to obtain recognition from Western governments and speak for Sri Lankan Tamils on the international stage.

“Our network is still functioning worldwide,” says Sunthar, a manager in a high-tech company near Chur.

“We are showing now that we can be democratic by electing this transnational government. What the world wants to see – us Tamils embracing democracy – that is what we are doing now. So is the world going to do anything for us?”

Sunthar’s question is a timely one. A year after the appalling destruction that ended the civil war, the Western world seems to have forgotten about Sri Lanka.

But the continued presence of the Tamil community in Switzerland and elsewhere is a reminder that the ethnic problem that has bedevilled the island nation for so many years still awaits a solution.

Terence MacNamee,


The Tamils started coming to Switzerland in the 1980s. Accordingly, the Swiss have had time to get used to the presence of a visible minority. But it was not always so. In the beginning, the young Tamil men were suspected of being drug-dealers and were often stopped and questioned by police. (Now this unenviable reputation has transferred to a more recent arrival, the West Africans.)

The Tamils were the first dark-skinned people who immigrated here in large numbers, and they were slow finding acceptance among the Swiss population at large. Tamils recall experiencing racist abuse in public places. They were a target for exploitation by unscrupulous employers.

Meantime, however, the Tamils have won respect by their habits of hard work and their family orientation. The majority of Swiss have got used to the sight of large Tamil social gatherings at weekends, with the women dressed in beautiful saris and the children in colourful costumes.

Yet that is as close most of them get to the Tamils. There is comparatively little intermarriage, and Tamils socialise mainly in their own extended family group. Thus the Tamils remain an enigma for the Swiss – a now-familiar presence, but little understood.

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The three-decade civil war in Sri Lanka ended a year ago. In May 2009, Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and the last of his soldiers made their last stand against the Sri Lankan army. Casualties among the Tamil civilian population trapped in the disputed Vanni enclave shocked the world.

Since the end of the war, many people have been living in refugee camps. There are still Tamils fleeing Sri Lanka and trying to get into Switzerland and other Western countries.

Last month, the International Crisis Group called for an investigation into possible war crimes committed by both sides of the conflict.

Recently re-elected President Mahinda Rajapaksa has a strong parliamentary majority; his priorities include long-awaited economic and political change. However, the Singhalese Buddhist has struggled for the support of people in the mainly Hindu Tamil areas. At election time, there were even reports of voter intimidation.

The president’s party has nearly two-thirds of Sri Lanka’s parliament – the amount needed to change the constitution.

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