The global Tamil diaspora was partly politically involved in the civil war in Sri Lanka (1983-2009). After the war, many Tamils abroad did not end their commitments to Sri Lanka, and continued to focus on the needs of Tamils and on the reconstruction of Tamil regions. Previous studies have analysed the political and economic activities of the Tamil diaspora during and after the civil war in Sri Lanka. However, health-related diaspora activities have not received much investigation. Nevertheless, health remains a crucial issue in the Tamil diaspora as well as in Sri Lanka. Many Tamil doctors and medical students left the country before and during the civil war and half of the posts in Tamil health institutions became vacant. Health structures are not fully recovered in Tamil regions from that exodus yet. This raises the question, if and/or how Tamils abroad try to improve the health situation in these regions in Sri Lanka. In addition, how did the Covid-19 pandemic change that commitment?
To investigate this question, we conducted a two-year qualitative transnational research project connecting countries of residence of Tamil migrants (Germany and the United Kingdom) as well as Tamil regions of origin in Sri Lanka. We interviewed leaders and members of Tamil migrant organizations in Germany and the United Kingdom. In Sri Lanka, we conducted interviews with partner organizations and institutions of Tamil migrants abroad (NGOs, hospitals, universities, etc.) as well as observations in relevant institutions (primarily in clinics and hospitals) in Tamil regions. The underlying theoretical considerations of this study can be framed by the research nexus of migration, transnationalism, and development, particularly with a focus on the potential of highly qualified migrants for development in their countries of origin.
Our first findings show that Tamil migrants in Germany created a dense network of migrant organizations, including several umbrella organizations and issue-specific organizations, focussing on politics, economics, education and health, such as Tamil medical associations or student organizations. Many of them were founded over the last 12 years. However, all of the interviewed organizations deal (to some extent) with health issues in Germany and/or Sri Lanka. In Germany, their work connects health and education, ranging from mental health education (trauma, depression), prevention and nutrition to education based on traditional and western medicine. Here, they work closely with partners and doctors in Tamil regions in Sri Lanka. Particularly, smaller health-based organizations transfer their medical know-how to Sri Lanka. Their members return to disadvantaged communities in Sri Lanka to (re)build hospitals, offer important medical services, or to train local doctors or nursing staff.
In these organisations, the second generation (born in Germany, well-educated and well-integrated) sets a different agenda than the first generation migrants (who came as refugees to Germany in the 1980s) by focusing on specific projects and are supported by an international network of NGOs, businesses and European state institutions. For instance, a Tamil student and alumni organization implements different health projects in cooperation with hospitals, businesses, the Sri Lankan Health Ministry and other local partners in the city of Jaffna. Here, they apply a universal health approach connecting mental and physical health, nutrition and environment.
This national and transnational commitment was heavily affected by the Covid-19 pandemic over the last two years. On the one hand, the pandemic limited the commitment of Tamil migrants physically (cancelled temporary returns to Sri Lanka due to travel restrictions, reduced health remittances, or less shipments of drugs and medical equipment).
On the other hand, the pandemic accelerated the commitment of Tamil organizations, because of additional digital mobilization and opportunities. More events and workshops on health-related issues are conducted online. In this way, more members of the Tamil community can be reached for less costs, in not only Germany and Sri Lanka, but worldwide. This digital approach was not a plan, but caused and forced by the pandemic, or as a member of a Tamil medical association in Germany put it: “We thought, the pandemic would put our work down, but the opposite was the case. Our work became even faster. Because of digitalization during the pandemic, we got more requests for help, and we could reach more people by our workshops and consultation hours on WebEx and Zoom.”
About the authors: Sascha Krannich is a research associate at Giessen University (Germany) and former Visiting Academic at COMPAS. He is conducting the research project on Tamil migrant organizations and their health commitment in Sri Lanka. Cecile van Maanen and Laura-Alina Fabich are assistants in this project. The project is funded by the Fritz Thyssen foundation (2020-2022).