Focus on the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees

"Sri Lankan Tamils arrived in India at different stages, sometimes as a mass exodus, sometimes as a trickle. When the massive inflow started in July 1983, make shift camps sprang up in different parts of the State."

By Dr. V. Suryanarayan

(November 13, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian)Observers of Tamil Nadu political scene are “intrigued” at the extra-ordinary interest displayed by Chief Minister Karunanidhi on the legal status and living conditions of the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees who have taken shelter in the State during recent years. The issue came into sharp focus during the centenary celebrations of the great Tamil statesman C.N. Annadurai. Speaking during the concluding session of the centenary celebrations in Kancheepuram, Karunanidhi, according to media reports, proclaimed that the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees living in and outside the camps would be granted Indian citizenship soon.

It was pointed out by those who had specialized in refugee issues that Karunanidhi’s demand had several policy implications. If the demand is conceded, it would act as a precedent for other refugee groups who have sought asylum in India –from Tibet, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. The demand also contravened the well established policy of the Government of India, which stipulates that the refugees should return to their homeland once normalcy was restored there. What made Karunanidhi’s demand so strange was the fact that at no point of time has the Sri Lankan refugees made such a request to the Government of Tamil Nadu or to the Government of India.

What are the aspirations of the Sri Lankan refugees? There is no unanimous view on the subject among the Sri Lankan Tamils living in India. But their general expectation was reflected by K. Sachchidanandan, the well known Sri Lankan Tamil writer in an interview to the Tamil edition of India Today: “We do not want Indian citizenship nor do we want dual citizenship. What we expect is the same status accorded to the Nepalese in India, so that we can move freely in the country, we can pursue higher education and we can engage in any vocation that we like”. What Sachchidanandan, however, fails to mention is the fact that thousands of Nepalese living in India have over the years become Indian citizens.

Realizing that his demand was impractical and will not elicit any favourable response from the Government of India, Karunanidhi changed his stance. In his subsequent statement the Chief Minister demanded that the refugees should be accorded the status of permanent residents. The fact should be highlighted that the present policy of the Government of India, supported by the State Government, is not to pressurize the refugees to return to the island immediately. Though the Tigers have been defeated in the battlefield and the Fourth Eelam War has come to an end, complete normalcy has yet to return to the Tamil areas in the island. Speaking in the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly, few months ago, during the discussion on the grants for the refugees, the Finance Minister K. Ambazhagan made it clear that the refugees can continue to live in Tamil Nadu until such time they felt that it is safe and secure to return to the island. Moreover, the office of the UNHCR in Chennai verifies the “voluntary” nature of the repatriation when the refugees are repatriated to the island.

The policy enunciated by the Finance Minister is in sharp contrast to the policy pursued by the Government of Tamil Nadu in the days following Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. Reflecting the anger and indignation against the Tigers, who perpetrated the heinous crime, then Chief Minister Jayalalitha demanded that the Sri Lankan Tamils should be immediately sent back to the island. Application forms for repatriation were distributed in the refugee camps to ascertain the wishes of the refugees. These forms were in English language and the overwhelming majority of the refugees were conversant only in Tamil. According to NGO’s working among the refugees during that period, the repatriation was not voluntary. Cases were filed in the Madras High Court that the policy of repatriation violated the principle of non-refoulement which meant that the refugees should not be compelled to go back to their homeland against their wishes. The Government of India, in order to avoid embarrassment and criticism from the international human rights organizations, decided to invite the UNHCR and gave it the mandate to ascertain the “voluntariness” of repatriation. The present policy, as spelt out by the Finance Minister, is far more progressive, it reflects the best Indian traditions of providing succour and asylum to all refugees who look up to India as a safe haven.

Equally interesting, the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister has asked his cabinet colleagues to visit the refugee camps scattered throughout the State and submit status reports regarding the living conditions of the refugees. The Chief Minister also met and held discussions with the leaders of the Sri Lankan Tamils like S.C. Chandrahasan and K. Sachidanandan. The Chief Minister announced that Rs 12 crores will be spent to improve the living conditions in the refugee camps. In his role as the “champion” and “saviour” of the Tamils, living in different parts of the world, Karunanidhi declared that they are “Tamils, not refugees”. Writing in the party organ Murasoli, Karunanidhi mentioned that the State Government would be able to initiate steps to improve the living conditions if the refugees were accorded permanent resident status. In his article Karunanidi drew a distinction between the attitudes of the elderly refugees who wanted to return to Sri Lanka and the local born refugees, many of whom had married local Tamils, who wanted to be given permanent resident status. After getting the feedback from the Ministers and District Collectors the Cabinet will spell out new policies to be followed by the State Government.

Before analyzing the implications of the present move, it is necessary to keep in mind certain basic realities. The Sri Lankan refugees arrived in Tamil Nadu in four waves. The first exodus of refugees began on 24 July 1983, soon after the communal holocaust in the island. It continued till 29 July 1987, when the India-Sri Lanka Accord was signed. During this period, 1,34,053 Sri Lankan Tamils arrived in India. Following the signing of the India-Sri Lanka Accord, the refugees began to return to the island. 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. Following Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, the repatriation of the refugees commenced on 20 January 1992. According to UNHCR sources, 54,188 refugees were voluntarily repatriated to Sri Lanka by chartered ships and flights from 20 January 1992 to March 1995. The Third Eelam War commenced in April 1995 and once again the refugees started coming to Tamil Nadu. By 12 April 2002. 23.356 refugees had come to Tamil Nadu. They comprised 7,715 families, consisting of 9,720 adult males, 8,110 adult females, 2,283 male children and 2,236 female children. Gradually the flow of refugees became a trickle and after the cease fire agreement in 2002 completely stopped.

The flow of refugees was a consequence of the Sri Lankan army’s operations in the LTTE-controlled areas. Most refugees took the Talaimannar-Rameshwaram route, while a few came via the Nacheguda-Rameshwaram route. The refugees trekked long distances, assembled in Talaimannar, paid huge amounts to boat operators and reached Rameshwaram. The sufferings of the Tamil refugees became evident when a boat capsized in the Palk Strait and 165 Sri Lankan refugees were drowned in February 1997. This was the second such incident; in October 1996, another tragedy took place near Mannar island in which 14 lives were lost. By 2001, the flow of refuges became a trickle. Most of the Sri Lankan Tamils who wanted to leave the island and had the financial means had left for greener pastures in Europe and Canada. Moreover, the Sri Lankan Navy exercised control over the outer islands in the Jaffna peninsula and the boat operators found it difficult to carry on human smuggling. During the cease fire period, 2002-2006, 9,793 refugees, living in the camps and outside, returned to the island with UNHCR assistance. Many also returned through illegal means. The returned refugees, whom the author interviewed in Mannar in 2004, informed that there was undue delay in the issue of exit permits. They also found it cumbersome to come to Chennai to get the legal documents from the Sri Lankan Deputy High Commission and the air tickets and other documents from the UNHCR. For them availing of the illegal boat service from Rameshwaram to Mannar was far more convenient and less expensive. This phenomenon should have been a matter of serious concern to both the State and the Central Governments.

The Fourth Eelam War, which commenced in early 2006, was fought to the bitter end by both sides. For a variety of reasons, by 2006, the tactical advantage had shifted in a big way in favour of the Sri Lankan Government. The armed forces, strengthened over the years with sophisticated weapons and determined leadership, embarked on a fight to the finish. The Tigers, cut off from their usual supply lines, began to suffer serious reverses. The distinguishing characteristic of the Fourth Eelam War was the savage bombing of the Tamil areas by the Sri Lankan Air Force. Temples, churches, schools and heavily populated areas became easy targets. International community, especially India, should have taken the initiative to rescue the Tamil civilians who were trapped between the inhuman army and the ruthless Tigers. Within India, there were sane voices which were demanding that the Government of Tamil Nadu should pressurise New Delhi to evolve a mechanism, acceptable both to the Sri Lankan Government and to the Tigers, so that under international supervision the Tamil civilians could have moved to safe sanctuaries manned by the ICRC and the UNHCR. The last stages of the Fourth Eelam War synchronized with the general election in India and the DMK leadership was more keen to placate the Congress party and the Central Government. The end result was no concrete steps were taken to rescue the Tamil civilians caught between the Sinhalese lions and the Tamil Tigers. It is a tragic fact that during the worst crisis that the Sri Lankan Tamils faced during recent years, the self-proclaimed champions of overseas Tamils in the ruling establishment in Tamil Nadu developed feet of clay. Like Banquo’s ghost, this tragic reality will haunt the sensitive Tamil minds for a long, long time.

At the height of the Fourth Eelam War, I had an opportunity to visit Rameshwaram and Mandapam. Those dark days were accompanied by death, destruction and displacement. There was hardly any Tamil family that did not undergo traumatic experience. A Tamil refugee, victim of repeated cycles of violence, confessed, “To be a Tamil in Sri Lanka is to live in fear”. I met few Sri Lankan refugees, who escaped from the war zone and after undergoing several trials and tribulations reached the Indian shores. Some of their compatriots lost their lives on the way; few died because there was no drinking water. Every refugee that I spoke to mentioned that, given an opportunity, all the Sri Lankan Tamils trapped in the conflict zones would have liked to come to Tamil Nadu. But they had no means to come to India. The Sri Lankan side of the Palk Bay had come under the control of the Sri Lankan Navy; Madhu Church in Mannar district which used to be a sanctuary for all those who wanted to escape to India had come under army control, and what is more, the Sri Lankan Navy had stepped up its vigil in the waters separating India from Sri Lanka.

Four Categories

The Sri Lankan Tamils in Tamil Nadu can be divided into four categories. 1) Refugees in the camps; 2) Recognised refugees outside the camps, 3) Sri Lankan nationals and 4) Tamil militants detained in Special Camps. It is essential to keep in mind the differences among the four categories and also their legal status. 1) Refugees in the camps. According to Tamil Nadu Government, there are 73,241 persons belonging to 19,340 families, who live in 115 camps in 26 districts. 2) Refugees outside camps. This category of people informed the rehabilitation department that they have the means to look after themselves. The government officials advised them to register themselves with the nearest police station, where they live and also get a refugee certificate from the Collector’s office. There are 31,802 refugees who live outside the camps. 3) Sri Lankan nationals who live in Tamil Nadu. They come to Tamil Nadu with valid travel documents and live in the State with their own means. They are required to register themselves with the nearest police station. Some of them continue to live in Tamil Nadu even after the expiry of the visas. Some of them use Tamil Nadu as a transit point to go abroad. Some, through improper means, have acquired ration cads and also own property. According to informed sources, under this category there will be nearly 80,000 people living in various parts of the State. 4) Militants in Special Camps. Those Sri Lankans, who have alleged links with the militant groups, are kept in Special camp in Chengalpet. According to informed sources, there are nearly 50 Sri Lankans who are detained in the Special Camp. Living conditions in the Special camp are abominable and the National Human Rights Commission has drawn the attention of the State Government to improve the living conditions.

There is one category of Sri Lankans, who have arrived in Tamil Nadu recently, whose whereabouts remain unreported by the media. According to informed sources, nearly 10,000 inmates, who were among the IDPs living in Manik Farm, after paying huge bribes to the Sri Lankan armed forces, have escaped from Vavuniya. Number of them have come to India after getting visa from the Indian High Commission through travel agents operating in Colombo. According to informed sources, during recent months nearly 5,000 Sri Lankans have come to Tamil Nadu by air and have sought refugee status. Presumably their applications are pending with the Home Ministry. It is very likely that some of them are hard core LTTE supporters and their presence in Tamil Nadu has serious security implications. Both New Delhi and Chennai should investigate this phenomenon and take immediate corrective measures.

Life in Refugee Camps

Sri Lankan Tamils arrived in India at different stages, sometimes as a mass exodus, sometimes as a trickle. When the massive inflow started in July 1983, make shift camps sprang up in different parts of the State. As Asia Watch highlighted, ”abandoned schools, poultry farms, ware houses, cremation ground, even open air toilets, have been used to house the refugees. Many refugees, living along the coast, are housed in emergency storm shelters”.

The refugees are conscious of the fact that they have come from a poor country to a poorer country. What makes Tamil Nadu attractive for them is the fact their lives will not be in danger. 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. Equally important, the parents bring their children to India to ensure that they are not forcibly recruited into the baby brigade of the LTTE.

The Government of Tamil Nadu has taken number of steps to assist the Sri Lankan refugees. The Government provides them financial doles, rice, kerosene and sugar at subsidized rates, free housing, free electricity, free medical aid, free education and has also included them among the poor for free distribution of sarees and dhotis during Pongal festival. When they move into the refugee camps they are also provided with free utensils, mats and other essentials of life. What is more, the refugees are permitted to work outside the camps and many refugees supplement their income by seeking employment. Some refugees also receive financial help from their relatives living abroad. The expenditure in connection with the refugees is initially incurred by the State Government, later it is reimbursed by the Government of India. According to the Policy Note published by the Government of Tamil Nadu, the expenditure in connection with financial doles works out annually to Rs. 26 crores. The 12 crores of rupees which the Chief Minister has allocated for improving the living conditions in the refugee camps is also likely to be reimbursed by the Central Government.

In terms of living conditions, it has to be pointed out that during normal times the Sri Lankan Tamils used to lead a better life in the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka. They used to live in their own houses, with a compound, in which they used to grow coconut and vegetables. The refugee camps in Tamil Nadu are sprawling settlements, with very little privacy, the roofs covered with tarpaulins or asbestos. The refugees complain, with certain amount of justification, that there is scarcity of water, poor sanitation facilities and absolutely no privacy in he camps. They also complain about the delay in the distribution of rice and sugar, the hospitals and the schools are located far away from the refugee camps. But what the refugees and the NGOs working among them do not realize is the fact that the villagers among whom the refugee camps are located, do not get the financial and other benefits which the refugees are entitled to. What is more, it must be highlighted that many people in Tamil Nadu villages live below poverty line. According to Tamil Nadu Human Development Report published by the State Planning Commission, nearly 21 per cent of the population in the State lives below poverty line. These facts are stated not to place obstacles in the way of improvement of living conditions of the refugees, but to make the Government of Tamil Nadu realize that the poor Indian villagers also require preferential treatment.

The extra - ordinary interest in the welfare of the refugees that is currently being displayed by the Government of Tamil Nadu has to be seen in the context of the image building exercise that the Chief Minister is currently engaged in to project himself as the champion of millions of Tamils scattered across the globe. Recently Azagiri, Minister in the Central Government and Karunanidhis’s son went to Indonesia and participated in cultural functions organized by the Tamil community in Medan and Jakarta. According to media reports, Azhagiri promised all support to the Tamil community in their quest to foster and promote Tamil identity. There had been justifiable criticism against Karunanidhi that during the last stages of the Fourth Eelam War, he did precious little to protect the Sri Lankan Tamil interests. Presumably now he wants to display political one upmanship over the opposition groups by organising an international conference on Tamil as the classical language and also by providing the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees a better deal.

Discerning students of Tamil Nadu politics are aware of the double standards practised by successive governments in Tamil Nadu in the treatment meted out to the Sri Lankan repatriates who returned to Tamil Nadu as Indian citizens under the Sirimavo - Shastri Pact, 1964 and the Sirimavo - Indira Gandhi Pact, 1974 and the “extra-ordinary” interest displayed by the present Government in the welfare of the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees. The two pacts mentioned above relate to the people of Indian origin who went to Ceylon under the protective umbrella of the British to provide labour in the tea plantations. It was their sweat and agony which converted the malaria infested forests of Sri Lanka into smiling tea plantations, which sustain the Sri Lankan economy even today. The Indian coolies were the “wretched of the earth” in the island. After independence they became cheap, docile labour to be exploited by the planters to the hilt; to the ruling elite in Colombo and in New Delhi, they represented an agonizing and embarrassing set of statistics, later to be divided between the two countries in the name of “good neighbourly relations”; to the Jaffna Tamils a group readily available for communal propaganda and to the fanatics among the Sinhalese the easiest and defenceless victims in times of communal conflict.

According to the statistics published by the Government of Tamil Nadu 4, 61,639 persons holding Indian citizenship documents were repatriated to India between 1968 and 1983. Incidentally this was one of the most organized worker migrations in the 20th century. Except for a miniscule minority (5 per cent) who were provided employment in the tea plantations, rest of them led a miserable life in India. The easiest way to dispose of the repatriates was to provide them with a business loan of Rs. 5,000. for self employment. 78 per cent of the repatriates came under this category. With no business acumen, the repatriates became easy victims of the touts and came to grief sooner or later. They later moved to Kotagiri and Kodaikanal, where they became bonded labourers of rapacious land lords. Unwanted in Sri Lanka and unwelcome in India, these repatriates languished in many parts of Tamil Nadu. The question arises, why did the DMK and the AIADMK governments, not display even an iota of sympathy for improving the living conditions of the repatriates? To add insult to injury, in Madurai and other places these Indian citizens were referred to as Sri Lankan Tamils, a status which they never got in the island, even after many years of residence there. How does one explain the step motherly treatment meted out to the Sri Lankan repatriates? Is it because most of them were members of the Dalit community? Is it because they were poor and marginalized?

Time is the great healer, and the problems faced by the repatriates got resolved with the efflux of time. The elder generation among the repatriates, who were nostalgic about Sri Lanka, is dead and they have been replaced by a new generation born in India. They have got completely integrated into the Indian society and have become a part of the working class in the State. The repatriate children are also availing of the reservation facilities available to the scheduled castes and backward classes and gradually upward mobility is taking place among them. Such a transformation has not yet taken place among the Indian Tamils living in Sri Lanka.

(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