Cautious optimism

Print edition : July 20, 2002

As Sri Lankan Minister Jayalath Jayawardena finds out, the mood among Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in Tamil Nadu in the post-ceasefire period is one of caution, after an initital craving to go home.

IF there is one constant refrain among the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in Tamil Nadu - their inflow began in 1983 - it is that they do not want to return until a permanent solution is found to the ethnic conflict back home. This was conveyed to Dr. Jayalath Jayawardena, Sri Lanka's Minister of Rehabilitation, Resettlement and Refugees, when he visited the refugee camps at Puzhal near Chennai and Palar Anaikattu near Vellore on June 27.

Jayawardena told Frontline: "We are not hurrying the return of the refugees because we have not yet achieved peace and we have not arrived at a final solution (to the ethnic conflict). We have created a healthy environment by signing the ceasefire agreement with the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). From February 24, it has worked well."

The Sri Lankan Minister for Rehabilitation, Resettlement and Refugees, Jayalath Jayawardena.-N. BALAJI

The Minister had a packed programme for a week from June 25. He met Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, former Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi and Education Minister M. Thambidurai, visited refugee camps, and paid his respects at the grave of the last Sinhala king, Sri Wickrema Raja Singhe, near Vellore.

After an initial craving to go home following the ceasefire, the mood among the refugees was one of caution, said a top official dealing with them.

Obviously, they are not sure of what awaits them. Negotiations between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE on setting up an interim administration in the Tamil areas of the North-East, which were expected to begin in May, are yet to take off. The tenuous peace that prevailed in the East has been fractured with clashes taking place between the LTTE and Muslims in July.

The official said that the refugees wanted to see how the talks would go. Besides, they are not sure whether their homes are intact and whether they can get back to their avocations. Most of the refugees have settled well, especially in the vast camp at Mantapam, Ramanathapuram, with pucca roofs over their heads, regularly paid government doles, free schooling and free bus passes for their children, and medical facilities. The Central government defrays all the expenses incurred by the State government. The men work as labourers in nearby places.

According to S.C. Chandrahasan, treasurer, Organisation for Eelam Refugees' Rehabilitation (OFERR), the refugees submitted a memorandum to Jayawardena, stating that they would return only when there was peace with honour and when a permanent solution was reached. Chandrahasan added: "India is not going to push them out. India's humanitarian response to the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees' plight is strong and stable."

I.V. Manivannan, Special Commissioner and Commissioner of Rehabilitation, said that Jayalalithaa had been sympathetic to the refugees."We deal with the refugees only on a humanitarian basis," Manivannan added.

There are about 65,000 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in 110 government-run camps in 23 districts of Tamil Nadu except Chennai and the Nilgiris. Besides them, there are about one lakh non-camp refugees living in various parts of Tamil Nadu. The arrival of refugees fell sharply from February 24, when the ceasefire came into force. From 1992, between 1,500 and 2,000 refugees reached Dhanushkodi every year. In 2001, the figure was 501. In 2002, till the first week of July it was only 57.

When Jayawardena met Jayalalithaa on June 28, she told him that Colombo should create conditions that were conducive to the refugees' return as early as possible. The refugees should be convinced about the facilities available for them to settle down quickly, she told him. Otherwise there would be no incentive for them to return.

Jayawardena replied that booklets would be circulated among the refugees, giving details of the facilities available to them when they returned home. The Sri Lankan Deputy High Commission in Chennai has been given instructions to sort out problems with regard to birth certificates and travel documents. Colombo would recognise the Plus Two course in Tamil Nadu as equivalent to the School Final course in Sri Lanka so that children could continue their education in colleges there.

According to Jayawardena, his visit was a follow-up to Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe's meetings with Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and Jayalalithaa in June. "We are thankful to the Government of India and the Tamil Nadu government for looking after our refugees for so many years," Jayawardena said. He added that every returning refugee would be recognised as a "legitimate citizen of Sri Lanka". Tamil militants belonging to various groups, kept in detention in special camps in Tamil Nadu, were also welcome back home. "We will accept all refugees. We will not discriminate against anybody," he said.

THE flow of refugees began when Sinhalese unleashed a pogrom against Tamils in July 1983 and thousands of Tamils were killed all over the island. Anti-Tamil violence by the Sri Lanka Army and Sinhala mobs in February 1985, August 1985 and April 1987 brought in more waves of refugees. By May 1987, there were about 32,000 camp refugees, besides one lakh non-camp refugees.

After the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement was signed on July 29, 1987, the Government of India chartered ships to take the refugees back, and government officials forced them to return, saying that the camps were going to be closed. About 28,000 of the 32,000 camp refugees returned to the island. Those who stayed back were Indian Tamils who had opted for Indian citizenship under the Sirimavo-Shastri pact.

There was a massive influx of refugees in July 1990 after war broke out on June 11, 1990, between the LTTE and the Sri Lanka Army. By April 1991, there were 1.23 lakh camp refugees and one lakh non-camp refugees in Tamil Nadu. After the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991, about 55,000 camp refugees were repatriated to Sri Lanka, many of them against their will. From 1996, there was an influx again when the war intensified in the Jaffna peninsula and the Wanni region. Today, there are about 65,000 refugees in 110 government-run camps.

Among the few organisations providing relief to the refugees in the State, OFERR is one. It has a full-time cadre of more than 400 social workers, 70 per cent of them women. According to Chandrahasan, OFERR's main objective is to improve the quality of life of the refugees in the camps by supplementing the government assistance. OFERR also organises medical camps for refugees, and its counsellors advise traumatised refugees.

There is another category of refugees called internally displaced persons (IDPs), who fled their homes in Sri Lanka and are living elswhere on the island. They number about seven lakhs, the majority of them Tamils. About 80,000 are Muslims and a few thousands are Sinhalese.

Jayawardena said, "I have a big task of resettling these IDPs and also the refugees from Tamil Nadu." The Department of Census and Statistics had begun a survey to find out the present status of the IDPs and whether they were willing to go back to their homes. "We don't want them to be resettled by force. The IDPs should be convinced that they are safe and their places are safe to start their lives anew," Jayawardena said. A resettlement package offered them financial assistance to build homes and to buy utensils, clothes and so on. About one lakh IDPs (Tamils) had moved out from their places of refuge in Mannar, Vavuniya and Kilinochchi districts to their places of origin in the Jaffna peninsula. The Minister said they had returned without the government's knowledge. "I have to look after their basic needs, shelter and education," he said.

He said that his Ministry was preparing a master plan for the development of eight revenue districts in northern province. The plan would cover Jaffna town and Chavakacheri (a badly destroyed town in the Jaffna peninsula) and Mullaitheevu and Kilinochchi districts. The World Bank and the Asian Development Bank were ready to provide financial assistance, he said.

The Jaffna Clock Tower has been rebuilt. It was reopened by the British High Commissioner in Colombo on June 19. The Prince of Wales donated one million Sri Lankan rupees for the reconstruction. Besides resettling the refugees and the IDPs, "my other task is to build trust between Tamils and Sinhalese," Jayawardena said.

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