Between fear and hope

Published : May 23, 2003 00:00 IST

A group of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees at Paradi near Dhanushkodi. A file picture. - K. GAJENDRAN

A group of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees at Paradi near Dhanushkodi. A file picture. - K. GAJENDRAN

Hopes of a lasting peace and the possible revival of the war-ravaged economy provide the necessary backdrop for the safe return of Sri Lankan refugees settled in Tamil Nadu to their homeland.

THE problems faced by Sri Lankan refugees and their possible repatriation to their homeland came up for discussion at the recent meeting between Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa and Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga. Needless to say, the continuing presence of Sri Lankan refugees in Tamil Nadu is a grim reminder that ethnic conflicts have long-term consequences and that they can cast their shadows on bilateral relations.

Refugees, as Sadako Ogata, former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), rightly puts it, "tend to evoke memories of sprawling camps, housing large numbers of distressed and impoverished people, who have had to escape from their own country at short notice and with nothing but the clothes on their backs". This picture reflects the reality of the majority of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees who live in 108 camps scattered across Tamil Nadu. Geographical contiguity, easy availability of boats, and ethnic affinities made Tamil Nadu a natural choice for large sections of Tamils who were forced to leave their country. New Delhi and Chennai alike recognised the need to provide them asylum and welcomed them with understanding and sympathy. Unlike many European countries, there were no time-consuming bureaucratic procedures, nor were there any restrictions on the movement of refugees.

The experience of refugees is a traumatic illustration of social change. They are uprooted from one social setting and thrown into another. In that process they undergo untold sufferings and irreparable tragedies. To the governments concerned, they are only an embarrassing source of statistics; but to sensitive social scientists, they are illustrations of man's inhumanity to man. As social anthropologist Pamela A. Devoe puts it, the refugee communities are "often still in crisis, in trauma, due to their experiences in their homeland. Many spend years in refugee camps; where births, marriages and deaths take place within the confines of this unnatural setting". Refugee experience in Tamil Nadu proves the validity of the poignant statement of Greek philosopher Euripides: "There is no greater sorrow on earth than the loss of one's own native land."

THE Sri Lankan Tamils came to Tamil Nadu in three waves. The first influx began soon after the communal holocaust in July 1983 and continued until July 1987 when the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord was signed. The Second Eelam War commenced in June 1990 and resulted in the second wave of refugees. The Third Eelam War began in April 1995 and once again refugees started coming to Tamil Nadu. With the declaration of the ceasefire in 2002, the flow of refugees to Tamil Nadu has become a trickle.

Why do refugees come to Tamil Nadu? India is a poor country, definitely poorer than the Tamil-inhabited areas of Sri Lanka. Obviously it is not the hope of a better standard of living. What must be underlined is the fact that the refugees are certain that their lives will never be in danger in Tamil Nadu. There are no midnight knocks; what is more, their wives and daughters can move about freely without fear of physical molestation. Two other important factors merit attention. Once you establish rapport with the refugee families, they will mention that they are afraid that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) may persuade/pressure their children to join the "baby brigade". Equally interesting, they knew that Tamil Nadu provided good facilities for education. Their children could study in Tamil Nadu without any break.

The flow of refugees was also closely intertwined with the twists and turns in India's Sri Lanka policy. It should be pointed out that Sri Lankan Tamils are highly politicised and the refugees were the warm waters in which the militant fish thrived. When New Delhi, after July 1983, adopted the mediatory-militant-supportive policy, the number of refugees pouring into Tamil Nadu increased by leaps and bounds. It is well known that Tamil Nadu became the sanctuary and the safe haven from which the Eelam struggle derived its sustenance. After the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, many Sri Lankan Tamils settled in Tamil Nadu moved to various parts of Europe and Canada. The assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by a suicide squad of the Tigers in May 1991 resulted in a fundamental change in India's Sri Lanka policy. Presumably spurred by security considerations, the Government of Tamil Nadu persuaded the Central government to ban the LTTE. The ban continues to this day. In Tamil Nadu there is a general sense of revulsion against the Tigers and their policy of intolerance towards other communities. What is more, the drummer boys of the LTTE are a miniscule group; they are isolated from the political mainstream.

While analysing the living conditions in the refugee camps, it is necessary to highlight the fact that the refugees have come from a poor country to a poorer country. The government provides housing, medical care and education free of cost. Clothing, materials required for simple living and utensils are also supplied free of cost. Rice priced at 57 paise a kg and sugar and kerosene at subsidised rates from the Public Distribution System (PDS) are also made available. The cash dole, amounting to Rs.200 for one member, Rs.144 for each additional member and Rs.90 per child below 12 years for the first child and Rs.45 for every additional child, is distributed every fortnight.

The Government of Tamil Nadu has permitted the refugees to take up work outside the camps, a gesture that was not extended to the Chakma refugees from Bangladesh. This facility enables the refugees to keep themselves meaningfully engaged and supplement their incomes. The refugees in camps near Erode work in hosiery industries, those in Gummidipundi have taken up manual work in the construction industry and many women work as housemaids. The refugees are included among the weaker sections and are entitled for free supply of sarees and dhotis during the Pongal festival.

From the academic year 1996-97, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government removed the restrictions imposed on the refugees in the matter of higher education by the earlier All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government. In some cases, the family income is supplemented by remittances from relatives abroad. The refugees are even permitted to go back to Sri Lanka for family reunion and other family needs. They are also permitted to leave the country, if they want to migrate abroad. The expenditure per annum on the rehabilitation of refugees works out to Rs.25 crores. The expenditure is initially incurred by the Government of Tamil Nadu and subsequently reimbursed by the Government of India. These facts are mentioned not to deny the refugees their due - in fact, it is the contention of this writer that living conditions in the camps could be easily improved if the lower rungs of the bureaucracy become more sensitive to the aspirations and feelings of the refugees - but to set the record straight in the context of misguided criticisms levelled by certain human rights organisations. The United States Committee on Refugees, in its 1991 Report, has noted: "India has accorded a welcome to the Tamil asylum seekers that is as generous as any refugee group in Asia."

THE Sri Lankan Tamils in Tamil Nadu can be divided into four categories: 1. Refugees in camps; 2. Recognised refugees outside camps; 3. Sri Lankan nationals; and 4. Tamil militants detained in special camps. It is essential to keep in mind the differences among these four groups and also their legal status. Unfortunately, the government, political leaders and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) use the term refugee interchangeably. It has created not only semantic confusion, but also administrative and legal bottlenecks.

Refugees: At the end of February 2003, there were 62,717 refugees, belonging to approximately 16,700 families accommodated in 108 camps spread throughout the State.

Recognised refugees outside camps: Some Sri Lankan Tamils came by boat to Rameswaram and informed the officials of the Rehabilitation Department that they did not want to stay in refugee camps as they can fend for themselves economically. They were asked to register themselves in the police station adjacent to the place of their residence and also get a refugee certificate from the District Collector's office. They are not eligible for financial help from the government or subsidised ration. However, they can avail themselves of educational facilities earmarked for refugees, especially admission to professional colleges and institutions of higher learning. These people are characterised as non-camp refugees. According to official sources, non-camp refugees in the State number about 20,184.

Sri Lankan nationals: They obviously belong to the well-to-do sections of Sri Lankan society. Their exact number is not known and their estimated number varies from 50,000 to 100,000. The "Sri Lanka Country Report on Human Rights Practices - 2002", recently published by the U.S. Department of State, records: "Approximately 100,000 refugees may have integrated into Tamil society in India over the years." During the last decade, approximately 25,000 refugees entered India with valid travel documents issued by the Indian High Commission in Colombo. Some of them continue to stay in India even after the expiry of the visa period.

According to informed sources in the Central government, the Sri Lankan nationals outside the camps have become a law unto themselves. A few own apartments and business houses, without the clearance of the Reserve Bank of India. A few others have taken ration cards, which only Indian citizens are entitled to. Some have even got their names included in the records as Indian nationals during the Census enumeration. Some possess photo identity cards issued by the Election Commission.

Another point, which has so far not attracted the attention of the authorities, deserves mention. According to the Sri Lankan Citizenship Act, children born to Sri Lankan nationals outside the island will have to apply for Sri Lankan citizenship by registration through the nearest Embassy/Consulate/High Commission. According to the Sri Lankan Deputy High Commission in Chennai, the number of applications received from Sri Lankan nationals for citizenship by registration is very low.

As far as the Indian Citizenship Regulations, originally Section 3 of the Citizenship Act of 1955, are concerned, they fully followed the principle of jus soli, and all children born in India, irrespective of the nationality of their parents, became citizens of India by birth. The only exceptions were children whose fathers claimed diplomatic immunity or whose fathers were an enemy alien and birth took place in territory occupied by the enemy. Thus the children born in India of illegal immigrants from former East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) became Indian citizens. Hence Section 3 was amended, as a consequence of the Assam Accord, by the Citizenship Amendment Act, 1986 (Central Act 51 of 1986) with effect from July 1, 1987. Thereafter, a child born in India after July 1, 1987 would acquire Indian citizenship by birth only if one of its parents is a citizen of India at the time of its birth.

The legal position is that children born to Sri Lankan parents cannot claim Indian citizenship by birth. But, in actual practice, if a birth certificate is obtained, the child can claim Indian citizenship since the nationality of the parents is not mentioned in the birth certificate. The Government of India should immediately take up this matter with the Sri Lankan government and ensure that the children born to Sri Lankan nationals in India are compelled to apply for Sri Lankan citizenship.

Sri Lankan nationals and refugees, who are identified as militants: Sri Lankan nationals and refugees, who are suspected to have militant leanings or have criminal cases registered against them, are accommodated in Special Camps. In 1992, 1,629 militants were detained in five special camps, in Vellore, Pudukkottai, Salem, Chengalpattu and Chennai. Over the years, the number of people belonging to this category has come down. Militants with no specific charges against them were permitted to leave the country. As on March 31, 2003, there was only one special camp, in Chengalpattu, and the detainees numbered 34 (31 men, two women and one child).

The Government of Tamil Nadu began to pressure the Central government to repatriate the Sri Lankan refugees soon after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. The repatriation commenced in January 1992. Immediately there was an outburst of criticism that India was pressuring the refugees to leave; that the repatriation was "involuntary"; and that since peace had not returned to Sri Lanka, the repatriates would not be safe in the island. The NGOs working among the refugees in India and human rights organisations such as Asia Watch alleged that the hapless refugees were being forced to leave and that their signatures had been obtained in option forms (unfortunately the forms were printed in English), the contents of which they did not know. According to Asia Watch, the repatriates faced "direct and indirect coercion to return home, including arbitrary arrest, withdrawal of stipends and food rations". Thereafter no international agency was permitted to visit the refugee camps to monitor whether the system was "voluntary". The refugees had "no reliable means" of ascertaining the actual conditions in their villages in Sri Lanka.

Following international concern about the repatriation process and the continuing insecurity in Sri Lanka, the programme of repatriation was temporarily suspended. Negotiations soon started between New Delhi and the UNHCR and in July 1992 an agreement was reached which allowed the latter to have a token presence in Chennai, with access to refugees at the point of departure, in the transit centres, but not in the camps themselves. The decision to permit the UNHCR to operate in Chennai and monitor the repatriation facilities led to the overall improvement of the situation.

The presence of the UNHCR in Chennai, though with a limited mandate, has enhanced the credibility of New Delhi in international fora. The Madras High Court in P. Nedumaran and S. Ramdoss vs The Union of India and The State of Tamil Nadu stated: "Insofar as the consent of the refugees is concerned, when there is a world agency to ascertain whether the consent is voluntary or not, it is not for the court to consider whether the consent is voluntary or not. Nothing has been suggested against the competence or impartiality of the UNHCR in ascertaining the willingness of the refugees to go back."

The UNHCR presence in Tamil Nadu has facilitated better coordination between India and Sri Lanka. The UNHCR has been operating in Sri Lanka since 1987 and coordination between the two units, coupled with the cooperation of the bureaucracy on both sides, contributed to the overall success of the repatriation process. The UNHCR has been assisting refugees, torn away from their families, by arranging for their reunion. According to official sources, in recent months, 196 persons belonging to 57 families returned to Sri Lanka, availing themselves of the good offices of the UNHCR. As and when the UNHCR receives any complaint/suggestion concerning the refugee camps, it immediately brings the matter to the notice of the Tamil Nadu government and attempts to speed up the administrative machinery.

SRI LANKA watchers in India feel that the time is opportune to start the process of voluntary repatriation of refugees to Sri Lanka. The long spell of ceasefire, though with occasional hiccups, and the interest shown by the international community to provide assistance for the rehabilitation of the war-ravaged economy provide the necessary backdrop for the safe return of the refugees.

The Department of Rehabilitation of the Government of Tamil Nadu should immediately undertake a survey to find out how many refugees are desirous of returning to their country. With the assistance of the Sri Lankan High Commission, necessary information should be provided to the refugees relating to the security and safety of villages in northeastern Sri Lanka, the progress of demining operations and the type of assistance which would be made available to the refugees by the UNHCR and the government on their return.

But the signals from Colombo are contradictory. According to media reports, the government seems to be keen on rehabilitating the internally displaced persons (IDPs) before addressing the problems of the refugees in Tamil Nadu. In this connection, it is necessary to highlight one important point. The refugees and the IDPs hail from the same area and as and when a village is ready for resettlement, it implies that it is ready for resettlement for both refugees and IDPs. It is a sad commentary of modern times that the host countries are asked to share the burden of refugees indefinitely, while the refugee-generating countries are treated with kid gloves.

The process of repatriation of Indian citizens from Sri Lanka under the Sirimavo-Shastri Pact hold important lessons for India and Sri Lanka. Although the Pact was signed in October 1964, the enabling legislation was passed only in 1967 and the actual process of repatriation commenced only in 1968. During these four years, the Government of India could have provided training in necessary skills to the Indian passport holders, so that when they returned to India they could have been successfully integrated into Indian society. The opportunity was missed. It is well known that except the fortunate few who were provided with jobs in the tea plantations, the rest of the repatriates were not meaningfully rehabilitated. The overwhelming majority - 76 per cent - were provided with business loans; since they had no business acumen, the rehabilitation schemes ended in failure. The repatriates and their successors continue to languish in various parts of Tamil Nadu.

Sri Lanka, with the assistance of the international community, is shortly embarking upon a massive rehabilitation programme in the war-ravaged areas of the island. Obviously, a detailed study of the manpower requirements will be made. The time is opportune for the governments of Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu to work together. The common objective should be to provide the refugees training in necessary skills, so that when they return to Sri Lanka, they would become worthy citizens of that country.

This writer has interacted with a number of refugees in recent years; they are grateful to India and Tamil Nadu for the asylum and the assistance rendered to them. When they return to Sri Lanka they will echo the same feelings of Ravinder Gidda, who spent many years in a refugee camp in Germany:

"We went in joy and in sorrow; Because of the destruction and the disgrace, We grieved for our community and we rejoiced that we had escaped with so many survivors I'm leaving I'm leaving now Before loneliness Suffocates me I'm leaving Before I leave I want to say thanks... for all the beautiful eyes who saw a (hu)man in me and not an alien."

Professor V. Suryanarayan is former Director, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras, Chennai.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment