O n March 29, the Indian Coast Guard (ICG) observed a Sri Lankan fishing boat off Point Calimere on the Indian side of the International Maritime Boundary Line. A Coast Guard ship, ICGS Rani Abakka, which spotted the boat, zoomed in for a closer inspection. Strangely, it found that the boat had only one crew member.
An ICG release issued on March 30 said that “the boat along with crew has been handed over to Coastal Security Group of Tamil Nadu government for further investigation”. The Indian Coast Guard said that it, along with other stakeholders, was “maintaining high alert along the maritime boundary with Sri Lanka”.
Indian intelligence agencies suspect that the boat was on a reconnaissance mission to figure out new landing strips on the Indian side because of a new business opportunity: that of ferrying Sri Lankan citizens to the south Indian State of Tamil Nadu. With the economic situation in Sri Lanka turning from bad to worse, leading to massive inflation, job losses and wage cuts, some people were thinking of crossing from the northern shores of Sri Lanka to the southern tip of India.
The first signs of a new ‘refugee’ influx into Tamil Nadu appeared about a month ago, when multiple agencies received inputs that a group of Sri Lankan Tamils had travelled to the north of that country and were trying to cross over. But there was no attempt to go across to India in February or early March.
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The alert continued even as the Sri Lankan economic situation turned worse. Slowly but surely, Sri Lankan fishermen, who have been vociferous over Indian fishermen’s repeated intrusions, fell silent over these transgressions—they could neither venture out to sea nor could they sell their produce gainfully even if they managed to have a decent catch.
Even though movement across the Palk Bay was minimal (except for Indian trawlers), intelligence inputs in India suggested in mid-March that the current situation could mean an influx of refugees. They put the number of people seeking refuge at a maximum of 2,000 over a period of time. The inputs also had it that many people who wanted to cross would rather wait and watch to learn how India treated the first batch of refugees.
First batch of refugees
The first batch of refugees, which can only be classified as economic refugees, landed on Tamil Nadu shores on March 22. As many as 16 Tamils landed in two groups. Members from the two groups told the media in no uncertain terms that it was the economic crisis in Sri Lanka that forced them to escape to India.
The ICG, which picked up both groups, said that the first group consisted of six people from two families—one man, two women and three children. They were rescued from Fourth Island (literally, the fourth island from the southern tip of the Indian mainland, Dhanushkodi) and were brought to the Mandapam hoverport for interrogation. The release said that the six had boarded a fishing boat at 10:30 p.m. on March 21 and reached Fourth Island at 1:30 a.m.
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“One of our relatives helped us gain access to a person who agreed to take us across,” Deori, 28, told reporters after landing here on March 22 morning. “When we reached the shores [in Sri Lanka] a person from one of the many boats docked there signalled to us to get into his boat. We boarded it and came here.”
Asked why she came here, she replied that the prices of all essential commodities had increased so much that her family was unable to afford anything. A single mother of two, she had been a refugee in India before leaving for Sri Lanka but was finding it difficult to work with two small children, Esther, 9, and Moses, 6. “That is why I came to India. I have some relatives here,” she said. Deori said that she paid LKR 10,000 for the trip. Gajendran, 24, from Jaffna, also confirmed that he had paid a similar sum for the trip.
Soon after they were handed over to the state, the Tamil Nadu Police produced them before a magistrate for remand. This is because India is not a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention of 1951 or the Protocol of 1967 relating to refugees and does not have a national policy applicable to refugees. Hence, anyone without a valid Indian visa is considered an ‘illegal immigrant’ in India.
Given the special status enjoyed by Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in Tamil Nadu, the 16 were were lodged in the Mandapam camp, a special camp for refugees, and not sent to prison.
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The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government in Tamil Nadu, after it assumed office in May 2021, has taken a series of proactive measures aimed at the welfare of refugees in the State. This included rebuilding houses for them and extending many of the welfare measures available for refugees in camps to those who also stay on their own outside camps.
On his recent visit to New Delhi, Chief Minister M.K. Stalin went one step further. On March 31, handing over a memorandum to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi, he sought permission to help Tamils in the island nation so that they did not land up yet again on Indian shores as refugees.
“Tamil Nadu is willing to provide essential commodities and life-saving medicines to the Sri Lankan Tamils living in the northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka and Colombo as well as those working in the plantation sector who are reeling under severe food crisis as a life-saving measure and help the Sri Lankan Tamils, especially the vulnerable group of women and children. It is requested to accord necessary permission to undertake this benevolent activity,” the memorandum said. Until the time of going to the press, there has been no reaction from the Government of India or the Prime Minister’s Office in this regard.