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For many Lankan refugees, Tamil Nadu is the home they know

Last updated on: October 31, 2011 09:56 IST

For many Lankan refugees, Tamil Nadu is the home they know

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A Ganesh Nadar in Ramanathapuram

Rediff.com's A Ganesh Nadar visits a refugee camp for Lankan Tamils in Ramanathapuram and finds out why many are reluctant to return home after the war ended in the island country.

There are over 100 refugee camps for Sri Lankan Tamils in Tamil Nadu, with more than 1 lakh refugees staying at these camps. An equal number of refugees, who are comparatively well off, stay outside the camps among the local citizens.

The Lankan Tamils have been coming to India since 1983 when the ethnic war broke out in the island country. Caught between a brutal army and an equally ruthless Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the poor people of Lanka came to India to stay alive.

The Mandapam refugee camp in Ramanathapuram district of Tamil Nadu was initially built by the British to house refugees coming in from Burma in the early 1940's to escape the Japanese army and the Indian National Army of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. Later this camp became the reception point for Lankan Tamils.

Tamils generally cross over to India through Rameswaram. Dhanuskhodi is the closest point in India to Lanka, which is just 18 kilometres from Thalaimannar in that country.

Even the Lankans who come to India by air and land in Chennai or Thiruvananthapuram come to Mandapam to register themselves before they stay here or move to some other camp.
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Image: Two Lankan refugees walk inside the Mandapam camp in Ramnathapuram
Photographs: A Ganesh Nadar/Rediff.com
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Refugees not sure about the situation back home

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The war in Lanka finally ended in 2009 after 26 years of fierce fighting and loss of innumerable lives. None actually knows till date how many people died and how many vanished in the war.

Though the war between the Lankan army and LTTE ended two years ago, most of the refugees do not want to go back.

In the Mandapam camp over a 1,000 refugees have gone back only in the last six months. For one-and-a-half years after the war ended, no one had gone back. They were not sure about the situation back home.

Now as they are getting positive responses from people who went back earlier, they too have decided to go back albeit in their own sweet time.

Here they get free housing, free power, free water, 20 kilos of free rice, 20 kilos of rice for 57 paise a kilo, and all other provisions at ration shop rates.

The head of the family gets Rs 1,000 a month. The other adults get Rs 750. Children get Rs. 400 a month. They all go to work near the camp. This helps too.

The distance from the Ramnad-Rameswaram road to the camp gate is about 400 meters. There are numerous shops in this market and all are run by the Lankans themselves.

Many people sell fish on the road. They fish from small tires that they float in the sea. There are computer centers, provision stores, cloth stores, tea shops, eateries, and even a beauty parlour here.


Image: A Sri Lankan refugee woman carries a bundle of sticks at the Mandapam refugee camp in the Ramanathapuram
Photographs: Babu Babu/Reuters
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'Others have taken over our property back in the village'

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Lakshmi has two daughters, Shashi Kala and Shashi Mary. Shashi Kala got married two years ago and lives in another camp in Vellore. Lakshmi is looking for a groom for Mary.

"Last month I found a young man but this fool refused to marry him. He was 30-years-old and she said he is too old for her. She is 24-years-old and that is a perfect match. But she refused to listen to me" she says.

Laskhmi says she will go back to Lanka only after Mary is married. "I cannot go back alone. The other villagers should come with me. We heard that others have taken over our property back in the village. We can fight for it only if we go in a large group, otherwise we will lose our land. My husband left me when I decided to come here over two decades ago. I don't know what happened to him," she says.

Special Deputy Collector K Durai explained to us that going back to Lanka was not a simple problem for these refugees.

"There is a particular procedure that has to be followed. The concerned refugee has to give me an application which I forward to the local collector," he says.

The collector asks for a report from the local police station inside the camp. There is a repartition committee in the collectorate which finally decides on the issue.

The refugees are given air tickets from Chennai or ship tickets from Tuticorin.


Image: Shashi Mary, a refugee staying in the Mandapam camp, had refused to marry an older man.
Photographs: A Ganesh Nadar/Rediff.com
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Tamil Nadu is the only home they know

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There are only 2,421 refugees at the Mandapam camp now, which has a capacity of over 15,000 people. Security around the camp is now relaxed. Earlier, they were very strict about local Indians not entering the camp or interacting with the refugees.

Now that the LTTE is no longer in the scene, the paranoid security apparatus is defunct. The cops here relax most of the time while they bully the fish seller for some prime fish.

The Lankans are reluctant to go back, particularly the very old ones, who will not be able to work once they get back home and won't have any doles like here. There is also another generation here which was born after 1983.

These refugees have never seen their homeland across the waters. Tamil Nadu is the only home they know. They are comfortable and happy here. They will not go back to a strange land from where their parents fled to escape discrimination.

And that discrimination is still very much there. Many feel that Lankan Tamils should be given Indian citizenship and be done with it.


Image: Sri Lankan refugee boys play at the Mandapam camp
Photographs: Babu Babu/Reuters
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