Refugees

Now here and nowhere

Print edition : November 13, 2015

A group of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees who arrived by boat at Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu in January 2006. Photo: AP

A group of Tamil refugees at the Tiruchi airport on February 26, before they returned to Sri Lanka. Photo: M. Srinath

At a play school inside the camp.

A notice warning people that the area is out of bounds for outsiders.

A government higher secondary school for girls in the camp.

A house in Rajapalayam with perimeter fencing reminding one of houses in Jaffna.

Refugees at the Mallankinaru camp.

A long row of houses in Mallankinaru.

A crumbling colonial-style bungalow at the Mandapam refugee camp.

The condition of the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees living in camps in Tamil Nadu, the question of their nationality, and their repatriation to their homeland or the country of their choice are problems that need to be addresed urgently in order to instil a sense of belonging in them.

A RUNDOWN, state-run hotel in Mandapam, near Rameswaram in Ramanathapuram district of Tamil Nadu, offered an inconspicuous venue in a region swarming with agents of multiple intelligence agencies for a meeting with some Sri Lankan Tamils from the nearby refugee camp. There was no visible sign of policing in the area. The “Q” Branch of the Tamil Nadu Police, which deals with the remnants of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), confined itself to the camp and its periphery.

A lone guard at the hotel watched with curiosity when we drove up and halted at the gates. “Not open,” he said and walked away. The 10 a.m. deadline for the refugees to show up at the hotel gates came and went. There was no sign of them.

The first batch of refugees came in at 11:30 a.m. Regardless of whether the refugees stayed in a “prison” camp or an open camp, talking to outsiders, especially to the media, was a strict no-no. All the refugees Frontline spoke to were unhappy with the manner in which the “Q” Branch treated them. They said they took undue precaution before meeting anyone as they did not want the “Q” Branch to be listening in.

So with utmost caution we began the interview. No names were taken, no names sought. (This correspondent verified the authenticity of the refugees who were willing to speak with the help of non-governmental organisations.) For the next few hours, the refugees spoke elaborately, eloquently and animatedly about their hopes and fears.

Suggestions that some of them had fought on the side of the LTTE were dismissed without a response. However, one of them gave a broad grin and said: “The past is what it is: the past. I can’t change it, I can’t deny it.” Several refugees from the camp said they did not want to go back to Sri Lanka. Interaction with refugees in other camps across the State, including the ones in Tirunelveli, Mallankinaru, Gummidipoondi and Rajapalayam, elicited a similar response.

The Sri Lankan Tamil refugee camps in Tamil Nadu can be broadly classified into three categories: special camps, camps near towns/cities, and rural camps. Special camps are a euphemism for open-air prisons. In a press release issued on October 3, referring to the happenings in the Tiruchi Special Camp for Sri Lankan Refugees, where some refugees began a “fast unto death” demanding that they be released from the camp, the Naam Thamizhar Katchi, a Tamil group, demanded that all special camps in Tamil Nadu be shut down.

Experts on the Sri Lankan question—politicians, officials and academics—who had been allowed to visit some of the camps from time to time agreed that the refugees were reluctant to go back to Sri Lanka because they were not sure what the future held for them. Professor V. Suryanarayan, a Sri Lanka expert, said: “Only if you experience this insecurity will you know what it is. On one side, the [Sri Lankan] Army was taking away Tamil youngsters [when they were in Sri Lanka]. On the other, the LTTE was forcibly recruiting Tamil youths. Despite all the problems they face here, they prefer being here. That is because this feeling of security cannot be quantified.” He holds the Nelson Mandela Chair for Afro-Asian Studies at the School of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University.

About three lakh Tamils fled Sri Lanka and took refuge in Tamil Nadu in four phases following the anti-Tamil violence in 1983. More than two lakh refugees have gone back. In a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in January this year, O. Panneerselvam, who was Chief Minister then, said there were 1,02,055 refugees belonging to 34,524 families in Tamil Nadu; 64,924 of them, belonging to 19,625 families, were living in 107 refugee camps. According to the October 9 issue of Sri Lanka’s Island newspaper, between 2002 and 2014, as many as 12,500 Tamil refugees returned to Sri Lanka. The bulk of them returned after October 2009, that is, after the Eelam War IV ended in May. The New Delhi office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) said in response to a question that 7,288 persons had returned to Sri Lanka after this period.

The refrain among the refugees in all the camps was that they had been living in India for a decade or more and barely knew what the future held for them in Sri Lanka though they periodically received information about the events in their home town through friends or relatives or from an occasional phone call. Conversations with a cross section of refugees over the past year threw up a plethora of issues that holds them back. Yes, life here is hard. Yes, it is not easy dealing with the “Q” Branch. Yes, they do not get the same wages as the local residents. Yes, they are not treated on a par with the local residents. Yes, 20 refugees at a camp near Tiruchi tried to kill themselves in November 2014 to protest against the slow progress in the process of repatriation. Yes, they complain that life at the camp is worse than the one that they had fled. But the fear of the war they fled, the resentment at not being cared for by the government whose policies drove them out, the uncertainty over their future, and the bitterness that had crystallised after being in limbo for over a decade and more in refugee camps in India, have all contributed to their pessimism about a possible return to Sri Lanka.

“The changes that have taken place in Sri Lanka are much more than we could have imagined. Still the Sinhalese hold the post of Prime Minister and President,” said a refugee at Mandapam, even as he launched a class to educate the people on the basics of the Sri Lankan conflict. He was referring to the changes following the January 8 defeat of President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the presidential election and the election of Maithiripala Sirisena as the new President.

A difficult, even strange, coalition of the two rival political combinations, the United National Party-led United National Front (UNF) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party-led United Progressive Freedom Alliance (UPFA), was in place. Their one-point agenda was to unseat Rajapaksa. Soon there were fissures in the coalition, but it held on to win enough seats in the parliamentary elections later in the year to lengthen its life.

At the end of a 10-minute pop history of Sri Lanka, he asked, “Can you allow us to be guests here forever?” After a pause, he said: “That’s not fair. Nor is it possible.”

An hour later, another set of refugees met this correspondent at a point behind the hotel. Asked if they would return now that the Sirisena government had stated that it wanted true reconciliation, one refugee stared long and hard and then spoke slowly, possibly to make sure that the listener understood the gravity of the situation: “Going back is a concept. How do we go back when we have no clue what has happened to our lands, when we have nothing to look forward to. Also remember not all of us have landholdings. The Tamil Nadu government is giving us a lot. How can we give all this up and go to a place where we have nothing?”

While he agreed that many old-timers certainly wanted to return to the land of their birth, he was not sure what the younger generation wanted. “Things are better here for them even though they are second-class citizens,” he said. “This is the country where many of them were born. Some came here as small children. This is the country they know. For them, Sri Lanka is a foreign nation, however else you may try to market it to them.”

Another refugee, who asked for an interview at a different location, was clearer in what he wanted: “I want to be buried in Sri Lanka. Adhu than enn mann [That’s my land].” But, he said: “no promises have been made. There is no clue about what will happen to us if and when we go back. There should be some clarity on this. India should talk to Sri Lanka and give us firm assurances. We left our lands at least a decade ago. We don’t want to be refugees in our own land.” He, like a few other refugees in other camps this correspondent managed to speak to, agreed that many of them did not want to leave India. It simply did not make sense to him. “We can’t get proper jobs here because of our status; we can’t live properly because we have the police always on our trail,” he said. It was the desperation, combined with the memories of the past when Sri Lankan refugees were rounded up and sent home, that made many refugees try, unsuccessfully, to go to Australia, he claimed. Also, there was no pressure to leave India, unlike in 1991, he said.

The reference to 1991 relates to the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. On a direction of the Government of India and the Tamil Nadu government, none of this is on paper, but entire refugee camps were emptied out and the inmates sent back to Sri Lanka. There were several instances of forced evacuation, agreed a senior official who had first-hand knowledge of the repatriation, in violation of the United Nations Charter.

In any case, India did not care much about the U.N. Charter, another civil servant said. This was because in 1970-71, as refugees from East Pakistan were pouring into India, and when India pleaded with the UNHCR for support, the High Commissioner did not help, apparently at the nudging of the United States. India fed the nearly three million refugees even when it was barely able to prevent its own teeming millions from going hungry. From then on, the office of the UNHCR has been an outcast in New Delhi’s South Block.

Pathetic conditions

The Mandapam camp is an open prison. You can go into it only if you belong there or are part of the police force. A formal request made to the Special Tahsildar, whose office is right next to the entrance of the camp’s gate, drew a blank. “You will have to get permission from Chennai,” he told this correspondent. Asked if the refugees wanted to go back, the official launched into an explanation of what officials do and when these things are done. The main point he made was that he did not interact with the refugees on issues unless there was a direction from the State government. Of course, the refugees were free to come and take up with him issues they faced.

In his view, all was well at the camp. But Dr M.H. Jawahirullah, the Member of the Legislative Assembly from Ramanathapuram and legislative party leader of the Manithaneya Makkal Katchi, disagreed. This was also the experience of this correspondent, who gained access to some of the camps. The conditions in 2015 are not vastly different from what a People’s Union for Civil Liberties Report found in 2006: “Nowhere the accommodation provided to the refugees is worth living in. All of the living quarters were built at the end of the 1980s. After that they were not repaired. Mostly, they are 10-foot by 10-foot rooms made of tiles or tar boards.... In the few toilets that are provided water facilities are not there. Men and women have to go to the nearby forests to relieve themselves. Since such a practice is non-existent in Sri Lankan culture, women suffer greatly.”

The report did not have any serious impact. Three years later, in 2009, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government sent a delegation of Ministers to various camps to study the conditions in them and make recommendations. The Ministers came back with reports that graphically outlined the appalling conditions in the 115 (at that time) camps in the State. Immediately, Rs.12 crore was allocated for improvement works in the camps. But there is nothing to show that the work had been taken up in most of the camps.

Asked if there was any significant improvement in the Mandapam camp, Jawahirullah said in an email communication: “The Mandapam camp is no exception. I am trying my best in this regard.” On the question of refugees wanting to go back, he said: “In spite of these conditions none of them is eager to go back.”

Recurring problems

In a 2012 review of the facilities at the camp and the plight of the refugees living in them, a host of new complaints came up. Jawahirullah was part of the review committee. Thirty-eight families were found to have got cooking gas cylinders without proper papers, and revenue officials had seized the cylinders. The larger issue of supplying liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) cylinders for refugees was brought to the notice of the Chief Minister, he said. Another issue related to the mistreatment of the refugees by the police on various pretexts. The periodic complications that are stitched into exit permits (to travel to another town for any reason), the pathetically tiny space granted to the refugees by way of accommodation, and the problems the authorities create after the refugee families illegally extend their houses to create additional space, the inadequacies of the local health post, the delay in the State government machinery crediting dole money to the accounts of the refugees—all these are recurring problems in most refugee camps.

Inside the Mandapam camp, a large number of colonial-style bungalows were either crumbling or had already crumbled because of lack of care. A primary school for camp-dwellers’ children, a church, a few temples, dwelling units for refugees, sentry points for the police, and dilapidated roads dot the sprawling camp, first created to hold the teeming refugees who landed in wave after wave following the 1983 anti-Tamil riots in Sri Lanka. There is no sign of any major repair work being taken up despite an allocation for the purpose. The roads inside the camp are crumbling, the perimeter fence has collapsed in many places, and there is wild growth of vegetation in the unused parts of the camp.

Jawahirullah said he took up the refugees’ issues whenever they approached him with complaints. Although he represents the area in the Assembly, he has encountered problems in entering the camp. He recalls one such instance. “But that was three years ago. I spoke to the [District] Collector and sorted out the issue. Recently a Communist Party of India (Marxist) MLA was prevented from entering the camp,” he said.

E.M. Sudarsana Natchiappan, Congress Member of Parliament and an expert on the Sri Lankan crisis, also faced similar problems with regard to entry to the camp. “The Public Department [during the DMK regime] issued an order preventing me from entering the camps,” he said.

Hope rested on a delegation of MPs familiar with the problems of the refugees that was visiting the camp. The delegation, headed by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, was persuaded to hold its meeting in the District Collector’s Office in Ramanathapuram. This was the Public Grievances Redress Mechanism. The views of everyone, including the refugees in Tamil Nadu, were sought. The members of the delegation even visited Danushkodi, the narrow strip of land near the Rameswaram island, and offered prayers there. They motored down just a few metres away from the camp, but no one visited the camp. “The explanation was that there was no facility to host MPs in Rameswaram,” Sudarsana Natchiappan told Frontline when asked why the team did not visit the camp. “So we asked representatives of the refugees to come to Ramnad [Ramanathapuram] and elicited their views,” he added.

Rajapalayam camp

A narrow, pot-holed road, its carriageway barely enough for a bus, branches out three kilometres from Srivilliputhur, on the Srivilliputhur-Rajapalayam highway. Sathirapatti, a dusty village lined with houses and brick kilns on both sides of the road; Vythialingapuram, with a single-line railway track, another nondescript village; a sewage conveyer that was once a fresh-water drain; and Arasiyarpatti, a bigger village with a spinning mill, a temple, a government liquor retail vending shop, and flag posts of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the CPI(M) and the Viduthalai Chiruthai Katchi (VCK), all political parties popular in the locality, emerge as the vehicle makes its way along the winding road. The villages give way to barren land on both sides. A sudden stretch of blacktopped road comes as a relief. More surprising is the sight of a nursing college on the road. A school, a few granite quarries, and neatly divided plots break the barren landscape. A little under 10 km from the main highway, left of a tri–junction, is Vinayakapuram.

There is no signage notifying this as a camp or an out-of-bounds area. As you travel along the road, you realise you are seeing something very unexpected: neat, thatched single- or double-room houses in a row on one side of the road, and each house has a perimeter fencing with woven palm leaves. Inside the fence, each house has a few coconut palms or fruit-bearing trees. The houses, the neatness, the people’s attire, all transport you to Sri Lanka’s Tamil-majority Northern Province. Vinayakapuram, tucked away in the wastelands of one of Tamil Nadu’s rain-shadow areas, is home to over 100 families from Sri Lanka. They have recreated their homes on this parched land. For sure, the Rajapalayam refugee camp is certainly not easy to locate. “It was meant to be so,” said a local trader.

Conversation with a few residents brought forth the same set of concerns that one hears in all camps across the State: Who will guarantee our safety? How do we rebuild our lives and what aid do we get from anyone? Can we not be allowed to live here as citizens? What happens to the things that we managed to buy here with such great difficulty? Will we be asked to leave? If you give us a plane ticket, how much luggage can we carry?

No conversations at any of the camps progressed beyond 15 minutes. The ever-vigilant “Q” Branch, first set up to tackle the naxalite problem in the State in the late 1960s and early 1970s and now controlling Sri Lankan Tamils with an iron hand, will get there in no time and ask you to leave. At the Vinayakapuram camp, this correspondent was taken to the police outpost by a camp representative. At the camp, a duty constable asked this correspondent to write down his name and other details and began a cross-examination.

After a brief exchange of words this correspondent left the camp. By then, it appeared that all the camps in south Tamil Nadu had been informed of a correspondent on the prowl. Camp inmates were instructed not to talk to the correspondent, which is rather curious. When this correspondent was based in Colombo, Frontline published a cover story on the displaced Tamils in Sri Lanka. The “oppressor”, the “Sinhalese” Sri Lankan government, which a U.N. report claims killed 40,000 Tamils, did not have a problem with Frontline accessing the internally displaced and talking to them. For some strange reason, the “Q” Branch has.

Mallankinaru camp

The Mallankinaru camp, about 50 km south of Madurai, is located behind a government high school and is practically hidden from view, although the main road leading from Madurai to the inconspicuous town is hardly 100 m away.

Actually, the entire space that the Tamils now occupy was a poultry farm. It was part of a government scheme to supplement the income of people from less privileged backgrounds. But after a decision was taken to accommodate Sri Lankan Tamils across the State, and not in a few camps, there was a dearth of suitable infrastructure. No one remembers why or how Mallankinaru came to be chosen, but it appears that out of all the sites that the officials inspected at that point in time in Mallankinaru, the poultry farm, with four walls and a roof over the structure, appeared the most ready-to-occupy space.

Local leaders say there has been absolutely no trouble between them and the 44 families living in the camp. “No instances of name-calling, no instances of youngsters from the camp falling in love with those living outside, and absolutely no instance of bad behaviour,” says Thangam Thennarasu, long-time resident and local MLA. Instances of falling in love with a local person might be passe for those living in urban pockets, but in small towns such as Mallankinaru it could become a matter of life and death. The refugees, aware of the rigid social fabric of southern Tamil Nadu, keep to themselves. This is not to say that there are no disputes within the families living in the camp. But these never spill over to the local population.

Daily living is difficult, regardless of where the refugee is housed—in prison camps, arid rural camps or small towns. Prison camp refugees have movement restrictions. In arid rural areas, where nothing grows, no jobs can be found easily. In big or small towns, where camps are hidden in plain sight, there are no jobs for the educated.

The larger picture is slightly different: refugees in camps near or in towns/cities are better off because temporary, unskilled employment is easier to come by. Those in camps further away from a city/town face untold hardships because the government dole is inadequate and irregular, and there are not enough employment opportunities. It is here that the difficulty to make ends meet makes the younger refugees search for employment outside society’s acceptable list of jobs.

According to Central agencies, Sri Lankan Tamil refugees brought into Tamil Nadu a marked degree of sophistication in crime: from looting automated teller machines (ATMs) to using fake credit cards to phishing. There are also instances of some influential people using refugees as “carriers” and as henchmen. Some others are involved in human smuggling from India to Australia and other destinations. According to a top official, in at least one instance in the recent past, Sri Lankan refugees have been apprehended for transporting FICN (fake Indian currency notes) from West Bengal. The agencies were stumped at the sophistication and the methods used by the refugees. “We have to admit that they are smart chaps. The handlers come to know immediately after a carrier is arrested. It is a cat-and-mouse game all the time,” the official added.

Even after completing college education, refugees cannot take up jobs on the basis of their qualification in India because of their status. Many end up as painters or mill hands and do odd jobs which the local people reject.

UNHCR’s framework

According to the UNHCR, the organisation is currently facilitating the voluntary return of Sri Lankan and Afghan refugees. India is not a party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees or the 1967 Protocol, nor does it have a legal framework and national refugee status determination system. As a result, the UNHCR processes claims for refugee status in India. There are about two lakh refugees of various origins in different parts of India, according to the UNHCR’s Global Appeal for 2015 Update (South Asia).

The UNHCR carries out a Refugee Status Determination procedure, which starts with registration as asylum seekers. Following the registration, the UNHCR conducts interviews with each individual asylum seeker, accompanied by a qualified interpreter. This process provides a reasoned decision on whether refugee status is granted or not and gives the individual an opportunity to appeal a decision if the claim is rejected.

Asked what the quantum of assistance is for a returning Sri Lankan Tamil refugee, the UNHCR’s spokesperson said in a written communication: “Anyone who comes forward to us with an intention to go home is interviewed by us to ensure that his decision is voluntary. UNHCR helps them with travel documentation and provides information on the place of return. UNHCR in consultation with refugees and authorities uses the most convenient, suitable and cost effective transport, which currently is to buy tickets on regular commercial aircraft.

“Once they have returned, UNHCR Sri Lanka provides some support to assist in settling down. UNHCR Sri Lanka receives them at the Colombo airport, provides reintegration grant and assists with cash transport grant to help refugees travel from Colombo to their homes. On reaching their homes, the refugees receive non-food items assistance.”

Early this year, Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju visited Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in Gummidipoondi, near Chennai, to understand their issues first hand. He told presspersons: “When you are living in a refugee camp, we know you are not satisfied as you are away from your homes.” An intelligent double-guess, which was totally wrong. “I have come here to see the situation of the refugees and have sought a report from the State government too,” he said.

On the refugees’ persistent demand for Indian citizenship (the previous DMK government had even passed a resolution urging the Union government to grant the refugees citizenship), he said: “If the State government recommends, then we will talk about it.”

Natchiappan, a rare moderate voice among politicians in the State, has visited the refugee camps in Sri Lanka and has voiced his support for the rehabilitation of the Tamils. He said the first step in the process was to identify and return the lands belonging to the refugees. This was the first condition, he said. For this, he suggested the formation of a committee with representatives from Tamil Nadu’s Revenue Department and the government agents of Sri Lanka. The claims of all the refugees should be verified, he said.

The Sri Lankan film-maker Soumidharan, who visited the Tamil areas in Sri Lanka with a team of like-minded people and later met President Sirisena, believes that there is the will in Sri Lanka to help the refugees. In a conversation with the team after its visit to the Northern Province, Sirisena asked them to identify specific landholdings belonging to individuals. While admitting that landholdings might not be exactly identified for want of documents, he was of the view that if the general area could be located, the government would work with the local authorities to make sure that the land was given back to the refugee who abandoned it at the time of fleeing the country, regardless of who occupied it now.

Suryanarayan raises the question of the landless: “Not all are landed people. Besides, some of the lands are with the military in the High Security Zones. For those with identifiable lands, maybe, the integration to Sri Lankan society will be easier. What about the others?”

Besides, the refugees are not a homogeneous population. Those staying outside the camps in Tamil Nadu on their own are better off. Those in the camps are people who ran away with whatever they could grab as war reached their doorsteps. The third category is plantation Tamils, who landed in India before, during and after the war. Even the well-off Sri Lankan Tamils who live outside the camps complain that the process of extending their permits in India is not easy and requires multiple trips to locate the person in charge. While this is not a problem for those residing in the camps, they do face serious issues when they have to interact with officials of the Sri Lankan Deputy High Commission. This correspondent met a group of refugees who came to Chennai from a camp in southern Tamil Nadu for obtaining a certificate at the Sri Lankan Deputy High Commission. The refugees submitted their documents but were asked to come two days later, which was an impractical proposition for them. A few calls to their sympathetic minder, the ‘Q’ Branch boss of their camp, and friends who helped with their stay in Chennai made their life easier.

Those staying outside the camps face an additional problem. Some of them have not renewed their status papers with the appropriate authorities, and, as of now, are overstaying in India illegally. “A one-time pardon can be given to such people so that if the only issue standing in their way is their overstaying here, they can go back,” said one official who keeps track of the issue. “Sometimes the fines run into thousands of rupees. They will not be able to pay huge amounts even if they are well off and staying on their own,” he added. According to one senior official, the Sri Lankan officials have taken up this issue with the Tamil Nadu government.

Repatriation

The larger picture of the refugee crisis across the world is that it is growing in proportion geometrically and governments are barely able to react. This can be seen from the recent events in Europe and northern Africa. “Today, there are more than 60 million refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced persons worldwide as a result of conflict and persecution,” said Antonio Guterres of the UNHCR, addressing the 66th session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner’s programme on October 5. “Last year, 1,26,000 refugees were able to repatriate—that is 11 per cent of what we had in 2005. Fifteen new conflicts have broken out or reignited in the past five years, while none of the old ones got resolved. The number of people globally displaced by conflict every single day has nearly quadrupled in that time—from almost 11,000 in 2010 to 42,500 last year,” he added.

That alone is not the problem: “The humanitarian system is financially broke. We are no longer able to meet even the absolute minimum requirements of core protection and life-saving assistance to preserve the human dignity of the people we care for,” he added. Last year, the UNHCR’s repatriation rate was the lowest in three decades.

It is in this context of the growing refugee burden on the emerging economies that the Sri Lankan refugee has to be viewed. The conditions in Sri Lanka now favour a return of the refugees.

But, according to officials in Tamil Nadu, there is suspicion over this promise, too. The suspicions are well founded because the refugees have had little or no interaction with the actual guarantor of the rehabilitation project, the Government of India.

The refugees who are willing to go back to Sri Lanka on their own accord are issued “Exit Permits” by the District Collectors concerned. A simplified procedure for the speedy issue of Exit Permits has been formulated and implemented.

Frontline has confirmation from multiple sources that the Government of Tamil Nadu has exhibited extreme reluctance to allow Central officials to meet refugees in the camps directly. The confirmation has come from reliable sources, including Indian officials who handled the situation since 2009, after the Eelam war ended, and top officials of Sri Lanka and India who were part of a grouping often referred to as the “troika” because three top administrators from each country were present in it. One official said that the DMK government, which was in power from 2006 to 2011, was not enthusiastic about sending back the refugees and did not allow officials from New Delhi to interact with them directly. “This was after the end of the war in May 2009. The explanation given was that the conditions in Sri Lanka were not conducive to the return of refugees,” the top official, who did not want to be named, said. This was confirmed by a Sri Lankan diplomat who was handling the refugee issue at that time. “I have found a marked reluctance on the part of both [DMK and AIADMK] governments in Tamil Nadu. I found Delhi much more cooperative and understanding,” he said, on condition of anonymity.

Even the AIADMK government approached the problem with the same kind of tactic, an official who was handling related strategy issues in New Delhi said. “We had drawn up everything and finally had a plan. There was no response from the Tamil Nadu government even though we wrote to it repeatedly,” the official said. This was confirmed independently by civil society leaders.

For now, it appears that many civil society leaders are resigned to the fact that there can only be few incremental changes in the lot of the refugees. Prof. Ramu Manivannan, who teaches politics at the University of Madras and works on the Sri Lankan question, argues that the movement restrictions on refugees who have lived in India for a decade and more should be lifted and that they should be treated on a par with Tibetan refugees. “Many have spent 25 years in camps. This betrays the right to dignity of a human being. If the government cannot give citizenship, it should at least allow them to transit to another country,” he told Frontline.

Many others want at least the children of the refugees to be conferred Indian citizenship. “Both the governments have only treated Sri Lankan Tamil refugees as hostages. They want to tell the world that they are looking after the Tamils from Sri Lanka. Nowhere in the world has a community been held hostage for over 30 years,” Natchiappan said.

While there was no need to oblige the Sri Lankan government, the Indian and Tamil Nadu governments helped the refugees on a range of issues that made their everyday living easier, said T.K. Rangarajan, CPI(M) MP . “No country will ask a refugee to leave. We, too, shouldn’t. India should make sure that the educated find jobs and provide education to young children. Making them Indian citizens is not easy. But they should not be herded into prison-like camps. They should be allowed to travel freely,” he said.

The question of granting the Sri Lankan refugees citizenship has come up time and again. In 2009, Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi urged Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to grant citizenship to the refugees. Although Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram was quoted as saying that the matter was under the Centre’s consideration, there has been no word since. Karunanidhi raised the issue again in 2013. Despite Chidambaram’s assurance, the matter had not been discussed at any formal, structured levels in the government, said an official closely associated with the issue of Sri Lankan refugees.

On the question of citizenship, Suryanarayan said that a 1984 circular denying refugees citizenship was the problem. “The Narendra Modi government has made an exception in the case of Hindus from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. The same could be done for the Sri Lankan Tamils,” he said.

Is Tamil Nadu the only stumbling block in the return of the refugees? Not so, say a few prominent Sri Lankan Tamils in Sri Lanka, who were contacted for this story. There are not many happy endings among the 315 refugee families who have gone back in 2015. “Their lot is really bad. Most are staying with their relatives and friends and are trying to pick up the threads of their lives,” said an official who monitors their situation in the Northern Province. Asked if there were any success stories, he said that he had not come across any. Instead, instances of repatriated refugees asking to go back to India were increasing, he said. Accurate statistics on this aspect are hard to come by. For instance, the UNHCR in India says that it has not been involved in the registration and refugee status determination of Sri Lankan refugees in India. “Thus, we don’t have the details about refugees coming back to India,” its spokesperson said.

With the Government of India insisting that the only way to sort out the national question of Tamil rights in Sri Lanka is to “expand” the provisions of the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution—which grants some rights to the Provinces— civil society leaders do not see much headway in this regard. The Amendment is a non-starter because it stresses on the merger of the North and East Provinces, which has been struck down by the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, and granting devolution, including police powers, to the provinces, which no Sri Lankan government will agree to.

The sharp focus on the 13th Amendment (articulated in October at the 30th session of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva by the Indian representative) has actually taken the attention away from the issues that really matter: the Citizenship Act of 1948, the Sinhala Only Act of 1956, the educational discrimination of 1970, and the 6th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, which specifically targeted only the Tamils. Although Sri Lanka is now in a period of relative peace, the need of the hour is to make Tamils and the Sinhala-speaking people equal in the eyes of the Constitution. That is the first step.

Removing discriminatory provisions in the Constitution will send a clear message to the Tamil refugees that they are equal citizens. So far, the only offer from the Sri Lankan government is that it will rewrite the Constitution. That will be a long-drawn-out, acrimonious and laborious process, and it is not clear if this question will be addressed at all. Although Tamil is an official language in Sri Lanka, it is not used widely in government circles. Government servants have to take a test in Tamil for a promotion, but such examinations are often fudged or conducted in a flippant manner. During Rajapaksa’s rule, there was no enthusiasm about encouraging refugees to return home. This was out of fear that pro-LTTE elements might sneak back into the country, said a Sri Lankan official. “Now the priority in Sri Lanka is to handle the immediate problems. The refugee issue is not on top,” he added. Plus, the fact that any major pronouncement has to pass through three power centres —President Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, and former President Chandrika Kumaratunga—stands in the way of critical decision-making.

The next jolt comes from the UNHCR representative in Sri Lanka, Rianawati: “UNHCR Sri Lanka Operation for 2015 required a total of $ 7.6 million but in terms of actual contributions, our budget for this year is $1.1 million,” she told the Island newspaper on October 10. “I must say that in terms of funding, our ability to continue assistance to the IDPs in Sri Lanka is declining. While we do as much as we can, there is a likelihood that by the end of 2016, UNHCR will discontinue monetary and material assistance towards IDPs,” she added.

As the debate rages on what constitutes conditions conducive to the return of the refugees, the life of the refugee continues to remain in limbo.

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