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Refugees in India

Home away from home: Sri Lankan Tamils and Rohingyas rebuild their lives

Print edition : Apr 08, 2022 T+T-
at a camp  for Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in Puzhal near Chennai.

at a camp for Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in Puzhal near Chennai.

Sri Lankan refugees  receiving cash from officials in Mandapam near Rameswaram, Tamil Nadu, in September 2021.

Sri Lankan refugees receiving cash from officials in Mandapam near Rameswaram, Tamil Nadu, in September 2021.

the Rohingya camp  at Kelambakkam on the outskirts of Chennai. It is situated just off an arterial road in a crowded and densely populated area.

the Rohingya camp at Kelambakkam on the outskirts of Chennai. It is situated just off an arterial road in a crowded and densely populated area.

A view of the Rohingya   camp at Kelambakkam. The Tamil Nadu government has taken various steps to support refugees.

A view of the Rohingya camp at Kelambakkam. The Tamil Nadu government has taken various steps to support refugees.

A tailoring coaching  unit run for Sri Lankan refugees in Chennai, a 2015 picture.

A tailoring coaching unit run for Sri Lankan refugees in Chennai, a 2015 picture.

A recent study shows how two refugee groups in Tamil Nadu—Sri Lankan Tamils and Rohingyas—rebuilt their lives and integrated themselves into society with the state’s facilitation and limited legal support.

Although India has hosted refugees since Independence, it is not a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol (Relating to the Status of Refugees) and does not have a national policy applicable to refugees. But, with minimal state facilitation and limited legal backing, two refugee groups in Tamil Nadu—Sri Lankan Tamils and Rohingyas—have managed to rebuild their lives, says a recent study.

The study, titled ‘ Rohingyas and Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in Tamil Nadu: a replicable model of semi-permanent resettlement in low-resource settings ’, published in Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal in January 2022, held that despite constraints imposed by inadequate infrastructure and other restrictions, Sri Lankan Tamils and Rohingyas progressively integrated themsleves into local society and demonstrated that they were capable of fulfilling some important basic livelihood needs, especially with regard to education. Some areas for improvement have been identified, most urgently in terms of health and housing.

The study suggests that other States in India, as well as similar low-income countries (LICs), could learn from the current case study in administering workable policies for small groups of refugees.

Refugees in Tamil Nadu

Sri Lankan Tamil and Rohingya refugees live in Tamil Nadu with some support from the State government. Both cases involve “protracted refugee situations”. The UNHCR has recognised Rohingya refugees for rehabilitation (settlement, naturalisation or repatriation) (UNHCR, 2019). Some Sri Lankan refugees have volunteered to go back to Sri Lanka over the past few decades butthis option is not open to them. For Sri Lankan Tamils, this presents a peculiar situation whereby they have some benefits but almost no rights; they are allowed to live in Tamil Nadu but cannot, for instance, approach a state agency for redress of grievances. The two refugee groups have thus been living in a prolonged state of displacement, which might have a negative impact on some important aspects of their life, including social mobility and the ability to act politically.

Despite the situation described above, both groups seem to have established an equation with the local communities, following which their integration into society has happened. Several local government-supported mechanisms, largely inspired by humanitarian principles, have been recorded in Tamil Nadu (Valatheeswaran and Rajan, 2014).

Also read: Tamil Nadu government announces a slew of benefits for Sri Lankan refugees

The reason for refugee access to welfare schemes in Tamil Nadu (Government of Tamil Nadu, 2020) is competitive electoral politics. Political parties in power have vied with one another to help Sri Lankan Tamils specifically. Such reinforcing political factors are absent in the case of Rohingyas across India.

The Government of India has reimbursed the expenditure incurred by the State government on relief to Sri Lankan refugees, including Rs.1,021 crore (about $130 million in 2020 conversion rates or $3.5 million a year) spent between July 1983 and March 31, 2019, according to the Home Ministry’s annual report for 2018–19. In the case of Rohingyas, their housing, access to health facilities, education, water and power, cost about Rs.1.2 million a year (just over $16,000 at 2020 conversion rates). The Tamil Nadu situation is unique because unlike any other State of the Indian Union, it makes policies and programmes for refugees within the broad framework outlined by the Government of India and presents them in the State Assembly for approval.

Integration theories

Aspects of integration have long been the focus of policymakers and scholars studying refugee groups (Bucken-Knapp et al., 2019; Manojlovic, 2009; Grigoleit, 2016; Valtonen, 1999). The 1951 Refugee Convention (Relating to the Status of Refugees) and the 1967 Protocol place considerable emphasis on stimulating refugees’ capacity to acculturate and gain economic independence (Nawyn, 2011). According to a model developed by Ager and Strang (2008), integration depends on four distinct elements: (1) access to employment, housing, education and health (that is, markers and means); (2) citizenship and rights (social connection); (3) social connection within and between groups in the community (facilitators) and (4) structural barriers to such connections relating to language, culture and the local environment (foundation). Their model for integration provides a comprehensive picture of the domains that need to be in place to progress along the integration continuum.

All the above can be achieved only if there is an enabling context, with policies and programmes that promote self-reliance (UNHCR, 2018; Easton-Calabria and Omata, 2018). The study attempted to review the process of integration on the basis of the framework of Ager and Strang and explore how much the state has enabled Sri Lankan Tamils and Rohingyas in this process. How have they been able to live and work in relative peace as a consequence of state actions, and what has Tamil Nadu provided in terms of what Ager and Strang refer to as markers and means (for instance, housing, education, employment and health)? The research questions were as follows: What has Tamil Nadu done for Sri Lankan Tamils and Rohingyas since their arrival (in terms of housing, education, health and employment)? What has been the impact of these measures on the two groups (in terms of economic development and prosperity, educational progress and sense of belonging)? And, how replicable are these actions?

Also read: One law, many problems

The study took place in the context of an ongoing action research (AR) engagement with the refugee communities in Tamil Nadu, led by a local non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Chennai. AR offers a way of doing research that helps generate inputs for policy change and intervention (Bartels and Wittmayer, 2018) and was used thus not just to gather information about the status of refugees but to ensure that pressing needs might be addressed better. In the context of this larger study, the primary author, who is continuously engaged with the communities, acts as a mediator between the groups and NGOs in the locality.

The study employed a qualitative research approach in order to understand the experiences of the two refugee groups after they arrived in Tamil Nadu. Over a period of two years in 2019 and 2020 (during the first wave of the COVID pandemic), 13 semi-structured interviews, 27 unstructured interviews and 14 focus group discussions (FGDs), with men and women in both refugee groups, were conducted. The primary researcher visited the refugee settlements once a week for two years, resulting in various observational notes. In April and May of 2021, the primary researcher visited a few of the camps for impressions on how the refugee groups were coping with the second wave of the COVID pandemic.

While refugees are not actively integrated in India as a matter of policy, the concessions offered by the Tamil Nadu government essentially drive integration, without perhaps intending to do so. Concessions made to Sri Lankan Tamils and Rohingyas are (1) housing for those who required it; (2) access to government health facilities; (3) access to education for the children of both groups; (4) relative freedom to seek and gain temporary employment; and (5) pandemic relief.

Sri Lankan Tamils: those in and outside camps

The flow of Sri Lankan refugees to Tamil Nadu began in 1983. Providing housing to the large number of refugees (3,04,269 in total; by 1995, as many as 99,469 were repatriated in stages) quickly became a government priority. To avoid potential infighting, the State decided to settle the Sri Lankan Tamils from different villages/areas in separate locations. As there was no time to build new houses, they were accommodated in unused government buildings in districts.

After the first group in 1983, five more waves of Sri Lankan refugees arrived, of which 59,428 (18,834 families) were settled in 106 refugee camps and one special camp in Tamil Nadu (camp refugees). The government gave those who could bear their expenses the option of living in the community (non-camp refugees). Non-camp refugees had to inform the local police and obtain an extension of their residence papers every year. For camp refugees, the housing situation is relatively harsh, with limited space and inadequate sanitation. Most refugees hoped to leave the camps when they earned sufficient money to pay rent.

Also read: India-Sri Lanka relations turn increasingly fragile

The state provides free medical treatment for all refugees. Sri Lankan Tamil refugees living in camps are better served than Rohingyas because they have access to free government health care. A 2011 government order specifies that there will be no cap on the cost of free treatment in any government facility. Camp and non-camp Tamils routinely access local primary health centres and other hospitals.

In terms of employment, although there is no order from the Home Ministry prohibiting formal labour, the State’s interpretation is that since refugees receive financial aid, they should not work. As Rohingyas do not receive any financial aid, it can be argued that they can be allowed to work on humanitarian grounds. In Tamil Nadu, refugees are allowed to work informally, though they are not permitted to hold a regular job or have a permanent contract that would include benefits such as a monthly salary, medical insurance or provident fund. This is because the government believes that if this is sanctioned, it could lead to tension between the local population and the refugees. Hence, although refugees have access to different kinds of jobs they are not eligible for government jobs. Refugees are free to take up jobs in NGOs and non-profit community organisations. The Tamil Nadu government has opened bank accounts for all Sri Lankan Tamil refugees to route its periodic monetary assistance. This crucial aspect of financial inclusion has helped refugees access formal banking channels.

Every Sri Lankan Tamil refugee has been given an Aadhar card (the Indian national identity card), which makes it easier for them to find work in India. Practically speaking, Sri Lankan Tamils have fewer problems getting assimilated to the local culture because they speak the same language as the local people and also have the national ID. Yet, the fact that the refugees cannot be employed with a legal status regularly leads to their exploitation, regardless of whether or not they live in a camp. This is despite the fact that Sri Lankan Tamil refugees who do not live in camps are free to move wherever they want to and work the number of hours they choose. The challenges for refugees who live in camps include the inconsistency of employment and the lack of employment because of the location of the camp.

With regard to education, all refugees living in Tamil Nadu over the age of six can enrol for free in Class 1 in local government schools. Teachers from government schools go around their catchment areas (within a five-km radius of the school) to encourage parents (not just refugees) to enrol their children in school.

Also read: Imploding island

A Tamil Nadu government order also provides free education at vocational, college and professional undergraduate and graduate levels for Sri Lankan Tamils. More than 23,000 refugee students are enrolled from Class 1 to graduate courses across government institutions in Tamil Nadu. Of these, more than 18,000 are in Classes 1 to 10. From 2011 to 2012, Tamil refugee students in Tamil Nadu have been able to compete for admission to BE/BTech and postgraduate courses such as MBA/MTech/MArch/MPlan. Tuition fee concession is granted to Sri Lankan Tamil refugee students. As many as 268 students have benefited from this scheme from 2011–12 to 2018–19.

Rohingyas and local integration

Rohingyas in India are considered foreigners, not refugees. This means that unless Rohingyas have a UNHCR identity card, they can be summarily deported to Myanmar for overstaying without a valid visa in India.

In terms of housing, the government has provided Rohingyas a cyclone shelter in Kelambakkam village on the outskirts of capital Chennai (about 3,500 square feet, spread across two floors for nearly 90 refugees now). The refugees have built a temporary mosque, additional temporary housing, a community kitchen and a washing facility around the shelter. The sanitary facilities are limited and inadequate. Kelambakkam village has a population of 5,189 (Government of India, 2011).

Also read: Rohingya refugees face deportation threat

The camp is situated just off an arterial road in a crowded and densely populated area. There is a row of government quarters to the right of the structure, shops and business establishments to its left, and private houses behind the camp. Many Rohingya refugees long to live elsewhere because the place is cramped.

Although it is not mentioned in any specific government order, government hospitals give free treatment to Rohingyas. Some of the health problems they face might have to do with the poor housing conditions, including the poor quality of water and sanitation, particularly during the monsoons, when waste water, sewage and the rain water get mixed and the whole area gets flooded. This creates an environment that renders the residents vulnerable to various infectious diseases.

All Rohingya children of school age have been enrolled at the co-educational government school in Kelambakkam. About 20 of them can speak a little Tamil, and three of them speak it fluently. Although there is no separate order on free education for them, the Tamil Nadu government’s Directorate of School Education allows all children of school age domiciled in the State to attend school. There are four students in Class 8, and the remaining 28 are in lower classes.

As with Sri Lankan refugees, Rohingya children get free schooling. They are also provided bags, uniforms and free midday meals. Although initially most children attended local madrassas, all children of school age began attending the government school from the academic year 2016–17. At first, some of the children had a difficult time because some fellow students ostracised them. One of the reasons for their exclusion was their inability to speak Tamil. This initially resulted in a considerable number of dropouts among Rohingya children. Yet, in just over a year, they picked up the language and became more familiar with the Tamil culture; this helped them become better accepted in school.

Also read: Hounding Rohingyas

In terms of employment, Rohingyas are permitted to work, but unofficially. They depend on NGOs for food, clothing and other needs. All but three adult Rohingyas are scrap collectors. They earn anything from Rs.250 (about $3.5) to Rs.500 (about $7) per person each day that they work. Unlike Sri Lankan Tamil refugees, Rohingyas are yet to get access to banking channels, although NGOs and the local UNHCR office are working with local banks on this issue. Access to banks is a complex issue because the national ID is mandatory to open a savings bank account in India.

Findings of the study

The findings of the study indicate that both groups have been able to access services such as free housing, health care and education. Indeed, although numerous studies emphasise the unfavourable ways in which both Sri Lankan and Rohingya refugees have been treated in India (e.g. Dasgupta and Demény, 2003; George and Debbarma, 2011), particularly while awaiting formal citizenship, the Tamil Nadu government has taken various steps to support them. Still, the study indicates that both groups face various problems in securing their livelihood, particularly in relation to maintaining good health and accessing employment opportunities.

Although housing is freely provided for Rohingyas and Sri Lankan camp refugees, the conditions of these facilities leave much to be desired. Similarly, despite free education for all youth, many participants complained that they were unable to use their qualifications, including university degrees, to get appropriate jobs because of their refugee status. In that sense, most participants in this study aspire for better outcomes regarding their ability to work and secure the living conditions of their families.

Similarly, as indicated by other scholars (e.g. Stöckmann, 2017), some participants are frustrated and disappointed at not being able to obtain Indian citizenship despite having lived in Tamil Nadu for a long period. The issues of Sri Lankan Tamils and Rohingyas are complicated by the fact that the Government of India offers them no guarantee about continuing to stay in India. With respect to Sri Lankan Tamil refugees, the Union Home Ministry’s 2018–19 Annual Report (p. 244) explicitly states that “[t]he ultimate objective is that they should be repatriated back to Sri Lanka. Relief is given pending such repatriation.”

Also read: Karunanidhi and the Sri Lankan Tamil Issue

The study also indicates that many participants, despite their longing for better accommodation and working conditions, were grateful to the government for helping them thus far. In offering such services, Tamil Nadu seems to have been more progressive than other Indian States. The study thus highlights that, through a series of minor policy changes that promote a certain degree of self-reliance, the government has created an ecosystem that allows refugees develop a sense of livelihood, individually, for their families and in their communities.

There are some differences between Tamil Nadu’s approaches to Rohingya and Sri Lankan Tamils. The policy was essentially formulated for Sri Lankan Tamils, and Rohingyas have mostly benefitted from it; however, Rohingya participants articulated their need for a healthier and safer living environment, some of which arise from their inadequate housing facilities. Still, considering the historical and cultural differences between the groups, as well as the fact that Sri Lankan Tamils are considered “refugees” and Rohingyas are considered “foreigners”, the facilities offered to both groups have led to relatively similar outcomes so far.

The study shows that in Tamil Nadu, although there is greater affinity with the identity of Sri Lankan refugees (see also Jones, 2012; George and Debbarma, 2011; Bentz and Goreau-Ponceaud, 2020), the outcomes regarding the basic aspects of support for integration are relatively uniform. As explained earlier, the cost for the improvement in the lives of the refugees is merely $3.5 million a year for Sri Lankan Tamils and just over $16,000 for Rohingyas.

Notwithstanding the relative success of policies that help prepare a bare-minimum foundation for refugees in Tamil Nadu, both groups in this study shared instances of discrimination in their lives. Discrimination, which is a major barrier to integration (Moreira and Bareninger, 2010), came up in this study in several ways, such as the teasing of Rohingya children for their (lack of) Tamil language skills or the limited mobility of both refugee groups in and outside the camps. With regard to work, refugees did not always expect to be paid equal salary, and there have been instances of them being denied payment after completing a contract job of painting or fixing a plumbing issue. These biases faced by refugee groups in India are certainly debilitating and must continue to be addressed in future studies (see also Chapparban, 2020).

Also read: Which way Sri Lanka?

The process of integrating a vulnerable and easily exploited refugee community into the local community was possible because of planning: an addition of about 100 persons (average refugee population size when first housed in a community) into a semi-urban/rural setting, which have an average population of about 5,000, is relatively easy to manage and does not create animosity about “outsiders”. Segregating the refugee community and sending them to 106 camps across Tamil Nadu, though primarily a security-related measure, has helped prevent overcrowding of refugees in one place (such as in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh) and has led to diverse opportunities. First, it was easier to house them (mostly in abandoned government quarters/buildings), allow them to attend local school (without crowding out local people) and use local health facilities. This is a unique model where the cost to the state is negligible, but the benefits to the refugee community are significant. The study thus offers an example of what has been accomplished in a low-income setting for over three decades and might offer some lessons on how to resettle refugees without antagonising the local population.

R.K. Radhakrishnan is Senior Associate Editor, Frontline; Emma Emily de Wit and Joske G.F Bunders are with the Athena Institute, VU University, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.


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