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Tamil refugees look to return to Sri Lanka after regime change India, Sri Lanka have much to hash out before mass repatriation can begin
Published Date: 05/02/2015 (Thursday)

Subbiah Rajendran's eyes lit up as he spoke about the prospect of returning to his native Kilinochchi in Sri Lanka, which he left at the height of the civil war.

For the past 25 years, this 53-year old has been leading a refugee's life in India.

“We are hopeful of a better life after decades of suffering,” said Rajendran, who along with hundreds of others lives in Gummidipoondi refugee camp near Chennai, India.

“Our hope of returning to our country has increased after the change in government and the positive words of the newly-elected politicians,” said Rajendran.

Many in the camp say they feel optimistic for the first time in decades, following the surprise results of last month’s poll that saw Maithripala Sirisena oust the two-term president Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Ahead of the poll, Sirisena actively courted the Tamil vote with vows of change. Since taking office, his government has promised to tackle repatriation of Tamil refugees and devolve administrative powers to Tamil-majority provincial governments. Sirisena has also lifted both the economic embargo and travel restrictions on the north and offered to return Tamil-owned lands taken over by the military.

The words have come as a boon to refugees weary of spending their lives far from home.

“We have no fears about persecution any more,” said Rajendran, who serves as a refugee leader and frequently meets with government officials.

"From our family and friends [in Sri Lanka] we have come to know that normalcy has been restored," he said.

During a visit to India shortly after the election, Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera announced that “serious talks” would begin soon regarding repatriation of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees. More than 90,000 Tamils have taken refuge in India, fleeing three decades of violence in Sri Lanka.

MM Nayeemudeen, Additional Secretary at Sri Lanka's Ministry of Resettlement and Reconstruction, told ucanews.com that plans are being drawn for a mass repatriation.

“The ministry has to offer attractive packages for Tamil refugees in India. We expect UNHCR assistance to offer a package including housing projects for Tamil refugees to resettle. The resettlement program is one of the major priorities of the 100 day government action program,” he said.

President Sirisena is expected this month to visit India, which, for its part, appears to have already started working with Sri Lanka on the issue.

Last week the Sri Lankan cabinet reportedly approved the decision to facilitate repatriation. It also announced the issue will be discussed in detail during the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Sri Lanka in March. But India has not made any public announcements about the policy on the repatriation of Sri Lankan refugees.

An Indian official who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak with the press said repatriation “will be one of the main issues discussed” during the presidential visit.

“Both India and Sri Lanka feel that a longer term solution needs to be worked out taking into consideration all the refugee issues," he said.

Despite the large numbers of refugees, their conditions are far from stable.

More than 60,000 Tamil refugees live on government aid in 110 camps across Tamil Nadu. An estimated 30,000 others live in rented accommodation or with friends and relatives. Most of the camps are squalid and refugees are usually housed in temporary shelters for years.

“Most refugees work as daily laborers, even youngsters, despite finishing college. They find it difficult to get good jobs because of the lack of documentation and the stigma of being a refugee,” said Jayasurenath, 21.

Jayasurenath, a university postgraduate student, escaped with his family in 2009 during the final phase of the offensive of the Sri Lankan army against the Tamil Tiger rebels.

“If the new government in Sri Lanka is serious about repatriation and rehabilitation, Tamil refugees will definitely think about going back," he said.

Not everyone, however, shares the optimism of the refugees. Professor Ramu Manivannan of the University of Madras said he believed “it may be too premature to think about sending refugees back to Sri Lanka”.

“We need to see how the new government unveils its plan to rehabilitate the refugees,” said Manivannan, who is also the author of Sri Lanka – Hiding the Elephant, which documents the war atrocities.

The civil war between the Tamil Tiger's and the Sri Lankan government lasted for nearly four decades and ended in 2009 after government forces routed the rebels. The government is widely accused of having committed war crimes throughout the war, particularly during the final push.

A UN inquiry reported that at least 40,000 ethnic Tamil civilians died in the last months of the war.

In Sri Lanka, Tamil National Alliance spokesman and parliamentarian, Suresh Premachandran, echoed Manivannan’s assessment, saying the government had to take many more concrete steps before repatriation could occur.

“Most of their lands are under military occupation and there are no job opportunities here,” he said.

“They are our people and should come back but it is the responsibility of both governments to create a good environment for them to come back to.”

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