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Rehabilitating Displaced Tamils
Published Date: 02/02/2015 (Monday)

By V Suryanarayan

How long may we stay in another man’s land?” sang Kashi Ananthan, well-known Sri Lankan Tamil poet, in a poem which began with the words, “The parrot and the woodpecker may return to their nests without hindrance, but we the Tamil refugees may not”.

Seven years have passed since the end of the Fourth Eelam War. President Mahinda Rajapaksa claimed that normalcy has returned to the Tamil areas; demining has been completed; internally displaced persons (IDPs) have been rehabilitated; but the return of the refugees from Tamil Nadu proceeded at a snail’s pace. According to statistics made available by the UNHCR office in Chennai, from 2008 to December 2014, only 7,008 refugees belonging 2,256 families have returned to Sri Lanka.

The Tamil refugees hope that unlike the Rajapaksa regime, the new dispensation under president Maithripala Sirisena and prime minister Ranil Wikremesinghe will create favourable conditions so that the refugees can return to their homeland in safety and dignity. According to media reports, the refugee issue figured in the conversation that Sri Lankan foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera had with his counterpart in South Block. Today, there is no pressure from Tamil Nadu for the speedy rehabilitation of the refugees. At the same time, India cannot afford to bear the burden for a long time. What is more, return of the refugees will be in conformity with India’s refugee policy. Refugees will be given asylum in India, but, at the same time, they will have to return to their homeland once normalcy returns.

There are 65,057 refugees in 110 camps spread across Tamil Nadu. In addition, there are 34,600 non-camp refugees, who live on their own, in different parts of the state. Few refugees, who are suspected to have links with the militants, are detained in “special camps” under tight security. An interesting dimension of the refugees should be highlighted. As many as 30,000 are less than 17 years of age, which means they were all born in India. They have to be provided with meaningful employment on their return.

The refugees have come from a poor country to a poorer country. What makes Tamil Nadu attractive for them is the fact that their lives are not in danger. There are no midnight knocks on the door; their womenfolk can go out freely without fear of molestation. Educational facilities in Tamil Nadu are relatively better. A positive achievement of Sri Lankan refugees is the fact that they have availed of the facilities for higher education, as a result, there are number of doctors, engineers and IT professionals among them. If these people had remained in Sri Lanka they would have been deprived of educational facilities, especially during the war years. Or worse, these children would have been forcibly recruited into the baby brigade of the LTTE.

Soon after the end of the war, in order to facilitate the return of the refugees, the organisations concerned had liberalised the procedures. The government of India speedily issues exit permits; the Sri Lankan Deputy High Commission in Chennai provides them passports, marriage certificates and birth certificates for children born in India; the UNHCR gives them free air tickets to travel from Chennai/Tiruchi/Colombo and some rehabilitation assistance to start their lives anew. Despite these incentives, as the statistics cited earlier show, the refugees are reluctant to return to Sri Lanka. What is more, some gullible refugees have fallen prey to human traffickers, who promise to take them to Australia. Media reports indicate that many, who are forced to travel in rickety boats, have drowned in the mid-sea. The refugees do not also realise that the Australian government has tightened the asylum rules. The illegal immigrants are kept in Christmas Island and in Nauru, pending decision on their applications for asylum. Those who are denied asylum are deported to Sri Lanka.

There is one section of refugees who deserve sympathetic consideration from the government of India. There are 29,500 refugees who are of Indian origin. Their ancestors migrated to Sri Lanka in the 19th and 20th centuries to provide labour for the development of tea plantations. They are known as hill country Tamils. They have sold all their belongings before coming to India. Some of them have been granted Indian citizenship under the Sirimavo-Shastri Pact, but they could not get repatriated before July 1983. So they came to Tamil Nadu as refugees. Their lives have changed for the better after coming to India. Their children are educated; they have married local boys and girls and have assimilated into Indian society. I met some of these refugees in the Kottappattu camp in Tiruchi district. They told me that they would not like to return to Sri Lanka. In this connection, it is necessary to mention that the Constitution of India contains provisions for the grant of citizenship to people of Indian origin under specific conditions. And all of them fulfill these qualifications. But the major hurdle is the government circular which states that the government will not “entertain applications of Sri Lankan refugees for the grant of Indian citizenship”. The tragedy is that these unfortunate children of Mother India don’t have a constituency to champion their cause. Karunanidhi, Jayalalithaa, Vaiko, Nedumaran—none of them advocate their cause. It will be a humane gesture if New Delhi, which is eager to meaningfully engage with the Indian diaspora, treats them with compassion and understanding.

The new government in Sri Lanka, with the assistance of international agencies, should immediately chalk out a plan for the development of the Tamil areas. In that process they should also calculate how much of skilled labour will be required. Skill training could be imparted to the refugees in Tamil Nadu. And, when they go back to Sri Lanka, they could get successfully integrated into Sri Lankan society.

The experiences of refugees are traumatic illustrations of social change. They are uprooted from one social setting and thrown into another. In that process, they undergo enormous sufferings and irreparable tragedies. Torn between fear and hope, refugee experience creates a void in their lives.

Let us remember all of us can become refugees if man’s inhumanity to man spreads in our country also. As Benjamin Zephaniah, the refugee poet, has written: “We can all be refugees, nobody is safe. All it takes is a mad leader or no rain to bring forth food. We can all be refugees, we can all be told to go, we can be hated by someone, for being someone.”

The writer is former senior professor, the Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras. Email: suryageeth@gmail.com

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