Travails of Sri Lankan Refugees

"The voluntary and involuntary migration of Tamils from Sri Lanka to different parts of the world is a saga of human suffering. When Jaffna was under the control of the Tigers, they had to pay an “exit tax” to the LTTE. Clever and unscrupulous travel agents in Colombo further fleeced the gullible Tamils. The travel agents made flight reservations in circuitous routes from Sri Lanka to other countries, teaching the customers how to get on board the flight without necessary documentation and how best to avoid deportation once they arrived at their intended destination."

by V. Suryanarayan

(September 24, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) On September 12, 2008, eight Sri Lankan refugees, who undertook the perilous journey from Rameshwaram coast to Talaimannar in northern Sri Lanka, in an illegal ferry (popularly known in India and Sri Lanka as the Eelam Shipping Service) met a watery grave. The country boat was carrying 13 refugees and the boat capsized mid-sea near the Adam’s bridge. The dead included four women, two men and two children. Three of the survivors, including the boatman, swam ashore to Rameshwaram as they were good swimmers. The others managed to swim to the third islet, where they remained for many hours, till they were rescued by the Indian Navy. The refugees were living in Manamadurai, Pulliangudi and Thiruvannamalai camps. According to media reports, each refugee paid about 6,000 Indian rupees to the boatman.

The September incident is not the first of its kind. In October 1996, there was a similar tragedy near Mannar island, in which 14 lives were lost. In February 1997, there was a more gruesome tragedy; another boat capsized in the Palk Strait and 165 Sri Lankan Tamils were drowned.

The voluntary and involuntary migration of Tamils from Sri Lanka to different parts of the world is a saga of human suffering. When Jaffna was under the control of the Tigers, they had to pay an “exit tax” to the LTTE. Clever and unscrupulous travel agents in Colombo further fleeced the gullible Tamils. The travel agents made flight reservations in circuitous routes from Sri Lanka to other countries, teaching the customers how to get on board the flight without necessary documentation and how best to avoid deportation once they arrived at their intended destination.

The UNHCR Report, The State of the World’s Refugees, 1995, describes in detail the ramifications of human trafficking in Sri Lankan Tamil refugees. The Sri Lankan agents have developed links with traffickers in other parts of the world, known as schleppers or people smugglers. The techniques with which the smugglers used to deliver the human cargo are extremely dangerous. On number of occasions, Sri Lankan Tamils have been found drifting in dinghies and light rafts in the Baltic Sea, near the Danish coast, apparently dropped by Polish, Estonian and Latvian fishing vessels.

Geographical contiguity, ethnic affinities and easy availability of boats made Tamil Nadu a natural choice, when large sections of Sri Lankan Tamils were forced to leave their country. New Delhi and Chennai also recognized the need to provide asylum and admitted them with understanding and sympathy.

The refugees have come from a poor country to a poorer country. The Government provides free housing, free medical care and free education, in addition to financial doles and supply of essential commodities like rice, kerosene and sugar at subsidized rates. What is more, the Government of Tamil Nadu has permitted the refugees to take up employment – a gesture not extended to Chakma refugees from Bangladesh. It must also be pointed out that as far as the refugees are concerned, it is not roses, roses all the way, but what must be highlighted is the fact that the refugees do not feel any sense of insecurity in Tamil Nadu. There are no midnight knocks on the door, and, what is more, their wives and daughters can move around freely, without fear of physical molestation. The refugees also know that Tamil Nadu, unlike Sri Lanka, provides good facilities for education. The refugee children study in Tamil Nadu without any interruption. Those refugees, who can afford the expenses, send their children to private English medium schools. An analysis of the refugee statistics indicate that children in the school/college going age constitute a major percentage of the refugee population.

In order to understand the travails of the refugees, it is necessary to keep in mind how they arrived in Tamil Nadu in a chronological perspective. The refugees came to Tamil Nadu in four waves. The first exodus of refugees began on 24 July 1983, soon after the communal holocaust in Sri Lanka and continued till July 27, 1987, when the India-Sri Lanka Accord was signed. During this period, 1,34,053 Sri Lankan Tamils arrived in India. Following the India-Sri Lanka Accord, refugees began to return to Sri Lanka. Between 24 December 1987 and 31 August 1989, 25,585 refugees and non-camp Sri Lankan nationals returned to Sri Lanka by chartered ships. The remaining Tamils either returned to Sri Lanka without government assistance or continued to stay in Tamil Nadu either with their relatives or by their own means. According to Sri Lanka watchers, the period witnessed large scale movement of Sri Lankan Tamils, on their own, to different parts of Europe and Canada. The Second Eelam War between Colombo and the Tigers commenced in June 1990 and resulted in the second wave of the refugees. After 25 August 1989, 1, 22,000 Sri Lankan Tamils came to Tamil Nadu. Of these, 1, 15,680 were destitute and were accommodated in refugee camps. The repatriation of refugees commenced on 20 January 1992. According to UNHCR, 54,188 refugees were voluntarily repatriated to Sri Lanka by chartered ships and flights from 20 January 1992 to 20 March 1995. The Third Eelam War commenced in April 1995, and during 1995-2005, 22,418 refugees came to Tamil Nadu. Unofficially the Fourth Eelam War commenced in 2006 and from January 2006 to September 2008, 22,381 refugees have arrived in Tamil Nadu.

Despite the savage bombing of the Tamil areas by the Sri Lankan Air Force and the deeply felt desire of the Tamils to escape from the war zones, the monthly arrival of refugees into Tamil Nadu have not reached alarming proportions. The explanation for this phenomenon is two fold. First, the Tigers do not permit the hapless Tamils to leave the LTTE - controlled areas. Moreover, the Sri Lankan government is controlling and exercising tight vigil on the exit points in the Mannar coast. According to the information provided to the author by the Organisation for Eelam Refugee Rehabilitation (OfERR), the refugee arrivals in 2008 are as follows – January 145, February 159, March 233, April 233, May 556, June 228, July 261, August 115, September (up to 11th) 89.

The Sri Lankan refugees in Tamil Nadu can be broadly divided into three categories: 1) Refugees in camps. As on September 2008, there are 72,889 refugees, belonging to 19,296 families, in 117 camps spread throughout the State of Tamil Nadu. 2) Refugees outside camps. Some Sri Lankan Tamils came by boat to Rameshwaram 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 nearest to their place of residence and also get a refugee certificate from the Collector’s office. According to the Department of Rehabilitation, Government of Tamil Nadu, there are 8,380 families consisting of 23, 489 Sri Lankan Tamils in this category. 3) Sri Lankan nationals and refuges identified as militants. As on September 2008, 48 militants are accommodated in a special camp located at Chengalpattu.

When the cease-fire agreement was signed between the LTTE and the Government of Sri Lanka in February 2002, there was general expectation that the refugees would return to their homes in Sri Lanka. Various agencies involved in the repatriation, the Department of Rehabilitation, Government of Tamil Nadu, the Sri Lankan Deputy High Commission in Chennai and the UNHCR office in Chennai began to co-ordinate their activities to smoothen the process of repatriation of refugees. The power to issue exit permits to the refugees was delegated to the district collector. The “exit permit” is issued free of cost. A copy of the “no objection certificate” issued by the office of the police superintendent will be attached along with the exit permit. Those who want to get themselves repatriated to Sri Lanka approach the UNHCR office in Chennai. After checking their bonafides, the UNHCR office makes arrangements for their free tickets from Chennai/Tiruchi to Colombo. Once they reach Colombo, the UNHCR office in Colombo provides them a small allowance to meet the initial expenses relating to rehabilitation. The Sri Lankan Deputy High Commission provides the repatriates with the necessary travel documents and also birth certificates for children born in India. According to the UNHCR office in Chennai, 5,403 repatriates have availed of the free tickets between 2002 and 2006. As far as the number of refugees, who have got themselves, repatriated to Sri Lanka, according to the Rehabilitation Department, from 1983 to 2005, 1, 99,546 refugees have returned to Sri Lanka.

Despite the welcome initiatives mentioned above, the sad fact remains that more refugees have returned to Sri Lanka through the Eelam Shipping Service. The author recalls a meeting with a group of Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen in the Government Agent’s Office in Mannar few years ago. All the fishermen present in the meeting told the author that they were refugees in Tamil Nadu and they had returned to Sri Lanka not through the proper channel. In a recent conversation with the Author, SC Chandrahasan mentioned that OfERR had been sensitizing the refugees about the necessity to get proper documents and avail of the free tickets given by the UNHCR before they returned to Sri Lanka. In a recent press statement, the UNHCR office in Colombo has also advised the refugees to use official channels to return home in safety and dignity.

Why do the refugees return to Sri Lanka through the Eelam Shipping service? The main complaint of the refugees is that it takes two to three months before they get the exit permit. What is more, they have to pay a hefty amount to the officials before their papers are approved. The refugees also find it difficult to come to Chennai at least two times, once to get the travel documents from the Sri Lankan Deputy High Commission and second time, to submit their applications to the UNHCR. The refugees also point out that it is very difficult for them to go from Colombo to their homes in the northern districts. And on emergency situations, like visiting ailing parents, attending marriages and funerals they cannot wait for a long period of time. The illegal operators of the Eelam Shipping Service are ever ready to come to the assistance of the refugees, on payment of a fat fee, determined by the laws of demand and supply. But in that process they also run the risk of getting capsized in the mid-sea.

(Dr. V. Suryanarayan is Senior Professor (Retd), Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras. He can be reached at e-mail
- Sri Lanka Guardian