Waiting for refugees

Published : May 27, 2000 00:00 IST

Tamil Nadu prepares to receive refugees from northern Sri Lanka, but very few of them are coming.

THE Tamil Nadu government drew up a contingency plan towards the end of April to face a possible large-scale refugee influx from Sri Lanka, where the war had reached a critical phase. This is quite in tune with its declared policy since 1990 that "althou gh we may not invite refugees, there is no alternative to receiving them and providing for them".

Even as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam captured Elephant Pass on April 22 signalling an intensified battle for the Jaffna Peninsula, the State government reportedly received intelligence information that some 3,000 Tamils were waiting on the shores of Sri Lanka to cross over to India. It geared itself to accommodate new arrivals at the Mandapam transit camp in Ramanathapuram district. The district administration arranged to repair existing shelters in the camp and construct new ones in the event o f an influx. It was also planned to shift 1,200 of the about 8,000 refugees, who are now in the camp to camps in other districts. The families that were to be shifted were identified and intimated.

Surprisingly, the inflow was not as large as expected, at least up to May 18, three full weeks after the reported receipt of intelligence information. In fact, the arrivals appeared to be less than normal - records indicate that usually the flow reaches its peak during the month of May. Up to May 18, only 114 refugees had arrived as against last May's figure of 762, according to the refugee arrival list provided by the Naval Detachment in Rameswaram. The government figure for May is still lower at 39 (u p to May 18). Twenty-seven Tamils arrived at Arichamunai on the Dhanushkodi coast on May 5, and 12 joined them at the Mandapam camp on May 9. There was no refugee arrival after May 9, and the naval authorities described the period as a "refugee-free week ". However, 72 refugees from a camp in Talaimannar arrived in Rameswaram on May 21.

The less-than-normal flow of refugees is attributed to several factors. According to some observers, the Tamils may have been blocked at the exit points, with the Sri Lanka Army and the Navy intensifying their vigil in order to avert any possible LTTE in trusion. Further, LTTE or pro-LTTE elements themselves may have barred the Tamils' exit as the Tigers now need their presence in the island to fulfil their needs of manpower and blood. Yet another suggestion is linked to sudden changes in the situation a t the diplomatic level with the LTTE's offer of temporary truce and indications about India's stand.

Another view attributes the trend to the stand taken by New Delhi and to a larger extent the Tamil Nadu government, in whose attitudes some observers see a sea change between 1990 and 2000. They recall that in 1990, when the conflict had worsened, the pe ople of Tamil Nadu had sympathised with the suffering Sri Lankan Tamils and the State government, headed by Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, rolled out the red carpet for the refugees, whose number crossed the one-lakh mark. But political compulsions have now forced the State government to view the refugee issue in a different perspective altogether. Being a part of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) dispensation at the Centre, the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) is virtually on the horns of di lemma. Even as it is eager to outshine its more vociferous pro-Eelam allies, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) and the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), it cannot afford to ignore the cautious line taken by the NDA government and endorsed by s everal national parties, as also the changed perspective of a vast majority of people in Tamil Nadu on the "Eelam" demand and the Sri Lankan Tamil organisations, including the banned LTTE, in the wake of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991.

The DMK government has therefore to adopt a more cautious approach to the refugee problem. It has to make it clear that the Sri Lankan Tamils, who are genuinely affected, can be received and provided for, but that it would ensure a strict vigil against a ny possible entry of terrorist elements in the garb of refugees. Observers who blame the decline in the number of refugees on the Central and State governments feel that the larger-than-normal naval presence near the island and the reported questioning o f refugees by the Q-Branch police in an attempt to ascertain any links with terrorist organisations might have instilled fear in the minds of prospective refugees and the boatmen, both Sri Lankan and Indian, who usually handle their transit through less- than-legal means.

Agreeing that the vigil along the coast had been intensified, particularly after the killing of Rajiv Gandhi and the banning of the LTTE, the naval authorities and the police said that there was nothing unjustified about it. Lieutenant Commander C. Satis h, Executive Officer, Naval Detachment, Rameswaram, said: "We are not at war with the LTTE. But our business is to stop any kind of infiltration by the LTTE or any other terrorist organisation, whose presence on the Indian soil will harm our security int erests." The police asserted that it was well within their powers to screen refugees for weapons and possible terrorist links in the interests of national security. The naval authorities said that they could not ignore the view that a substantial number of arrivals this year could be members of terrorist organisations who are opposed to the LTTE and are seen as helping the Sri Lanka Army.

JOINT surveillance exercises by the Navy and the Coast Guard and round-the-clock patrolling by naval vessels and helicopters are part of the contingency plans for the coast. The naval authorities set up a Forward Observation Post (FOP) at Arichamunai in April to monitor the movement of boats and ships. (The boatmen, who facilitate the "illegal immigration", use fast fibre-reinforced plastic boats fitted with outboard motors.) The FOP has started serving its objective, a naval official said. The post is manned by four marine commandos. Four watch-towers are proposed in order to check militant activities. The Coast Guard has been provided with facilities to watch the movement of aircraft.

Meanwhile, the Ramanathapuram district administration has cautioned the Indian fishermen against going beyond the permitted marine zone. In order to indicate the Indian border, a board has been erected at Ainthamthittu off Dhanushkodi.

S.N. Seshasai, Superintendent of Police, Ramanathapuram, said that the administration and the police were ready to meet any eventuality. Besides regular search operations, surprise checks are made to detect any militants.

The State police have also stepped up security. Security around Mandapam and other refugee camps has been tightened and entry by outsiders into these camps is prohibited. The police seeks to provide access control measures at the camps and plans are afoo t to raise a compound wall around the transit camp.

Search operations are on inside the transit camp also in order to avert the intrusion of militants. Police sources said that 13 check posts had been set up in Ramanathapuram district, each manned by police officers of the rank of sub-inspector. Day and n ight foot patrolling and formation of village vigilance committees are other measures introduced in the district.

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