The return of refugees

Published : Oct 10, 2003 00:00 IST

in Chennai

MARY MATILDA's face brightens up at the prospect of returning home to Jaffna in Sri Lanka and reuniting with her relatives. She had been a resident of a refugee camp in Tamil Nadu since fleeing home six years ago with husband Lindon John, infant daughter Jebathirsa and in-laws to escape the war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lanka Army. "We took refugee in the scrub jungles of Vavuniya and stayed in tents. The Sri Lanka Army shelled the area and my mother-in-law was killed. I cannot forget how she was killed," she says and breaks down, much to the surprise of Jebathirsa, now seven years old, and her second daughter Jemi Sesiba (5). Matilda quickly regains her poise and is hopeful of beginning life afresh at Allapiddy in the Jaffna peninsula with the help of her three brothers. "My mind will be clear and I shall be my confident self when I meet them. Even if we have to suffer there, I do not mind it," she says.

Matilda's family was part of the 12 Sri Lankan Tamils who boarded a flight in Chennai on August 29, bound for Colombo. Their return was facilitated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Chennai. The UNHCR helped them get their travel documents and provided them air tickets after they signed the voluntary repatriation form. The UNHCR arranged for their travel from the refugee camp at Palar Anaicut in Vellore district to Chennai and also from Colombo to Jaffna. So far about 750 refugees in various camps in Tamil Nadu have left for Sri Lanka using UNHCR assistance.

If many of them flew out, others are taking the sea route. On September 8, one group left Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu, in 53 boats to Trincomalee on the east coast of Sri Lanka. They had reached Nagapattinam in their fishing boats in 1991. With the disused boats restored to sailable condition and packed with their belongings, they put out to sea in the presence of Sumith Nakandala, Sri Lankan Deputy High Commissioner in Chennai.

With the ceasefire agreement between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE signed in February 2002 holding for the past 18 months, the "wait and watch" attitude among the refugees has given way to increasing confidence about returning to their villages in the northern and eastern provinces of the island. On August 28, R. Satchidanandam (50), his wife Boopathy, their son Surya Kumar and daughter Prema Anandhi were raring to go back to Point Pedro in the Jaffna peninsula. They came to Tamil Nadu in 1997 and stayed in the camp at Mantapam, Ramanathapuram district, until 2000 when they were transferred to the Palar Anaicut camp.

"The letters we get from there, and the news bulletins on radio and television are clear that the ceasefire will not break down. Our relatives have asked us to come back with confidence. My parents are there and the situation is normal," said Satchidanandam, who hopes to return to the dry-cleaning centre that he owned and which was managed by his wife's brother in his absence. He claimed that if a ship were to be organised, all the refugees would readily return home.

Nakandala echoed this view. "In the camp at Mantapam, all refugees want to go back," he said. He quoted them as saying that they had acquired a lot of things during their 20 years in the camps in Tamil Nadu. They wanted a ship to return with all their belongings. The matter was under discussion with Colombo, he said.

His office in Chennai had issued 3,000 travel documents in 2002 to individual refugees who wanted to go back to the island. By July 2003, about 2,500 travel documents were issued. "That means the refugees going back to Sri Lanka are increasing," Nakandala said.

According to Marie Jose Canelli, Senior Administrative and Programme Officer, UNHCR, New Delhi, who oversees the Sri Lankan operation, so far 1,600 individuals have signed the voluntary repatriation form asking for UNHCR assistance. "What we do is to give the refugees an opportunity to return to their land legally," she said. The UNHCR did not like the refugees to pay huge amounts to fishermen to go back quickly. "We want to give them an opportunity to return in safety and dignity. It is also an attempt to curb illegal departure," Canelli added. She asserted that the refugees did not go from their camps in Tamil Nadu to a welfare centre or an intermediate refugee camp in Sri Lanka. "They are going straight to their villages where, in most cases, they are re-united with their families."

In her assessment, the situation in Sri Lanka was "not yet conducive to the large-scale return" of refugees. Yet, according to her, the stalling of the peace process since April has had "no impact" on the number of refugees going back. "We still have a high number of people who have expressed their desire to go back home," she said. A factor inhibiting large-scale return, she said, could be that many refugee children were in the midst of the academic year.

There are about 65,000 refugees in 103 government-run camps in different parts of Tamil Nadu. The State government provides them with rice, kerosene and other commodities at highly subsidised rates. The Centre defrays the State government these expenses. There is a special camp at Chengalpattu, where 40 Tamil militants are being held in detention. There is another category of refugees, called non-camp refugees, comprising about one lakh people living all over Tamil Nadu. They earn their livelihood on their own or get remittances from relatives working in the Gulf countries, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada or Germany. Many of these non-camp refugees are a prosperous lot, running telephone booths, taxi services, photocopying shops, publishing firms and so on.

The refugees who returned on August 29 were all praise for the UNHCR, particularly Geetha Kalyan, Senior Durable Solution Assistant, UNHCR office in Chennai, for making the arrangements for their departure. The refugees had written to the UNHCR in Chennai on learning that it would help them return home. Soon Geetha Kalyan met them in the vicinity of their camp to verify if they were returning voluntarily and asked them to come to Chennai to get their passports. She took them to the Regional Passport Office and the Sri Lankan Deputy High Commission to ensure that they received their passports and other travel documents. The UNHCR gave them the flight tickets free of cost. "Amma (Geetha Kalyan) treated us with kindness, saw to it that we suffered no hardship and made all arrangements for us to go back," said Satchidanandam.

When Nakandala took over as the Deputy High Commissioner in Chennai in November 2001, there was uncertainty about what the future held for the island. There was no section for refugees in the Deputy High Commission and the refugees' confidence in the Sri Lankan state had eroded considerably. "My main aim was to rebuild the refugees' confidence in the state," he said. Immediately after the ceasefire came into effect in February 2002, he created a special cell, headed by a senior diplomatic officer, for the refugees, to help them get their travel documents to return home. Now, the system is so streamlined that a person gets his travel documents within an hour.

A problem surfaced though. About 17,000 children born in the refugee camps were not automatically entitled to Sri Lankan citizenship. Rules demanded that their births should be registered under Sri Lanka's Citizenship Act. These children would not receive their citizenship unless they had birth certificates. Nakandala, therefore, impressed on the refugees that it was important to register their children's births before they went to Sri Lanka. "These children's future has to be ensured. I see to it that they get their Sri Lankan birth certificates and Sri Lankan citizenship certificates. So the moment they go to Sri Lanka, they will have a secure future," he said. He persuaded Colombo to waive the registration fee of more than Rs.5,000 for the birth certificates. Armed with the waiver, he and his staff went to the refugee camp at Mantapam, with the permission of the Union and the Tamil Nadu governments to receive application forms from refugees wanting to go back and issue them travel documents. This exercise would be replicated in other camps.

S.C. Chandrahasan, treasurer, Organisation for Eelam Refugees' Rehabilitation (OFERR), is not overly enthusiastic about a large-scale return of refugees. By his estimate, while about 5 per cent of the refugees want to stay in India for good because they are married to locals or have some connection here, 10 per cent want to go back "come what may". The majority, however, want to go back only after a permanent solution is found to the ethnic problem, according to him. He said that people were returning in small groups now because of family compulsions or because their parents were in Sri Lanka. "As of now, people are not moving out in large numbers. The movement became sluggish after the peace process got into a stalemate last April. The situation must be very clear there for the refugees to go back, bag and baggage," he said. Those who returned were mostly fishermen because the ban on fishing had been lifted. The farmers were not going back because the landmines had not been removed from their fields.

Chandrahasan alleged that the initial enthusiasm among the refugees to go back had died because of taxation by the LTTE. "People are being fleeced in various ways. More dangerous is the abduction of children (by the LTTE for recruitment into its cadres). So most of the refugees with children are reluctant to go back," he said.

What has not attracted attention is that several hundred refugees had returned on the sly, without informing the camp authorities. They had paid several thousand rupees to boatmen to ferry them to the Jaffna peninsula. Some of them came back and claimed that they went to see whether their homes were intact.

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