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'We have been treated well in India, this is the best model of refugee welfare'

February 12, 2014 09:24 IST

65,000 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees still live in Tamil Nadu. Rediff.com's A Ganesh Nadar discovers the challenges for the refugees to return home.

When the ethnic war broke out in the Tamil-dominated parts of Sri Lanka in 1983, hundred of thousands of Tamils crossed the Palk Straits into India.

A refugee camp in Mandapam awaited the Tamils fleeing the ethnic conflict. The camp was originally built to accommodate refugees fleeing Rangoon (now Yangon) in Burma (now Myanmar) ahead of the Japanese invasion during World War II.

Some Tamil refugees returned home after 2002 after the cease-fire between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Sri Lankan government. That peace did not last and many came back.

Post 2009 when the ethnic war ended after 26 years, wiping out an entire generation of Tamils, northern Sri Lanka is limping back to normalcy. In Tamil Nadu there are several refugee camps that house those who fled the violence many years ago.

On the outskirts of Chennai, at one such refugee camp, metal sheets seem to be the dominant building material even as a brand new toilet stares at you behind locked doors.

"They haven't inaugurated the new toilet block though it was built months ago, the old toilets are still in use," says a lady with a bright smile.

Mariamma has lived here since 1996. She lost her husband in the conflict and crossed over with two young daughters. "I don't want to go back," she says. "We are farm labourers, we have no land there and our home area is still seeing difficult times. I have a brother in Vavuniya and he says don't come back. He is trying to come here, but is unable to do so."

"One of my daughters got married in the Vellore camp. I have an invalid brother in the Dharmapuri camp. I want to get my younger daughter married by the end of the year and move in with my brother," she adds.

"I work in the construction industry and get a good pay," says Mariamma. "I will get the same pay back home, but work is not available there and inflation is high."

"There is power (electricity) here, our homes in Sri Lanka have no power," her daughter points out. "We cannot watch television or charge our cell phones. I don't want to go back."

"I have been here for more than 20 years," says T V Arasu. "I used to work for a NGO. I have a degree in agriculture and advised farmers about fertilisers and land usage."

"The LTTE told me to leave the organisation where I was working. I could not do without work. They posted a death notice on my door. I immediately came here with my family," he says.

"It was hard here too, but I found a job. One of my sons could not get admission to college here, so he went back when the war was on. He stayed in a relatively peaceful area, completed his education and now works in the government there," Arasu adds.

"After 2009 there is peace there. The infrastructure is much better. I got my house and land back, but with difficulty. It took a lot of time to get encroachers out of the land."

"Tamil Nadu politicians tell lies about the situation there," says Arasu, adding, "There is peace there. In some areas you cannot get your home and land back because the army is occupying it. The people will have to wait for the army to leave."

"I am going back alone. I have some unfinished work there. Once everything is ready I will come back to take my family home. We have been happy here, but try to get a SIM card or register a vehicle in our name and the difficulties start. We realise we are outsiders," he adds.

The Sri Lankan refugees in Tamil Nadu are looked after by the commissioner of refugees based in Chennai.

There are 65,000 refugees based in 110 camps spread out across the state. Three 'special' camps, which earlier housed LTTE cadres, now have refugees with criminal records. There are 35,000 Lankan Tamils who live outside the camps in Tamil Nadu; they do not receive any assistance from the government.

About 200 government staff work at these camps. Only the Mandapam camp where the refugees are screened, quarantined and registered has a police station. At the other camps the local police station, in particular the 'Q' branch, keeps an eye on the Lankan Tamils. The 'Q' branch monitors all aliens in the state.

After registration, the refugees are assigned to camps all over the state.

Every family head gets Rs 1,000 every month from the state government. Every adult gets Rs 750; every child Rs 450.

Like other Tamil Nadu residents, every family gets 20 kilos of rice free. They can buy more rice at 57 paise a kilo if they have more family members.

All freebies given to the citizens of Tamil Nadu are given to the refugees. These include mixers, grinders, fans, even goats. The refugees get the marriage assistance for poor girls and old age pensions.

The Tamil Nadu government will spend Rs 1.0991 billion on the refugees this financial year. This does not include the cost of the freebies.

"We have been treated very well here," S C Chandrahassan, the founder of the Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation, an NGO working for the Lankan refugees in India and Sri Lanka, told Rediff.com

"We do not feel different from the citizens of this country, but we must go back to our homeland. The Indian and Tamil Nadu government spend so much on us. If they could invest some more money in Sri Lanka, it would go a long way in helping us rebuild our lives there," he says.

If the Indian government invested Rs 5.50 billion in Sri Lanka (which is what it would spend on the refugees in five years), he says, the refugees could return home.

"We don't want the money," says Chandrahassan. "India should spend the money in Sri Lanka, building homes for the Tamils there."

"They are well looked after here, why would they want to go back?" asks a state government official.

If a Lankan refugee wants to return home, s/he has to apply to the district collector for an exit permit. This is granted after the collector verifies with the local police station that the individual has not committed any crime here.

"We have told the collectors that they should give permits only to entire families and not to individuals," says the government official, adding, "some of them go back and forth like tourists."

Once the collector issues an exit permit, the Sri Lankan embassy issues a one time visa for the refugee to return. The United Nations gives the refugees a one way air ticket and money for travel from the camp to the airport here, money to travel from the airport to their home in Sri Lanka and money to survive for a month there.

M Sakkariyas worked in the Sri Lankan government. He has lived in India for 18 years.

There are, he says, three reasons that keep the refugees in India. First, the Sri Lankan government has not announced any package for the returning refugees.

Second, among the 65,000 refugees at the camps, there are 40,000 Tamils of Indian origin. They worked as plantation workers in Sri Lanka. In the 1977 ethnic violence, these Tamils were uprooted from the plantations. They came to the Tamil areas in northern Sri Lanka. Each family was given two acres of land by the then Sri Lankan government.

"After 1983 they were uprooted like the rest of us and fled to India," he says. "Now the Sri Lankan government is not promising to give them back the two acres of land which they were tilling. Instead, they are saying we will try to give you land elsewhere. This is not convincing enough for these people to go back."

"Moreover, 19,000 children have been born here. We are trying to get them Sri Lankan birth certificates."

"Third, no one has a home to go back to," Sakkariyas points out.

Another deterrent is the Sri Lankan army's presence in many areas. Those who claim their land pre-1983 can only do so in areas occupied by civilians. Where the army is based, they have been told to claim their land only after the army leaves. It is not specified when the army will leave, Sakkariyas says.

Asked if the Sinhalas and Tamils now have an amicable relationship, Chandrahassan smiles and says, "The best example of the Sinhalas and Tamils cooperating can be seen in the fishermen battle. The fishermen of Tamil Nadu are in direct conflict with the Tamil fishermen of Lanka."

"The Tamil fishermen in Sri Lanka complain to the Sri Lankan navy which is manned only by Sinhalas and the navy in turn arrests Indian Tamil fishermen," he says.

"I have been going back every month and meeting Sri Lankan ministers. They have been cooperative and agree with us," Chandrahassan says. "I have given them a book which shows what the Indian government is doing for us. We are asking for the same facilities there till we build our lives."

"The Sri Lankan government should be happy to have us back," he says. "We can help rebuild the nation. Our children have received the best education in India. This year alone, 85 students have entered engineering colleges in Tamil Nadu."

"We want the return to be staggered so that the students studying here can finish their education before returning home. School children will find it difficult to change from here to there. The system is different. Those who want to return later should be made overseas citizens now. Or they can stay in Sri Lanka and educate their children in India," Chandrahassan adds.

Asked if the Sinhala and Tamil public trust each other, he says, "A minority on both sides are suspicious of each other, but the majority on both sides are with truth and reconciliation. They want to forgive, forget and move on. Revenge will plunge us into more violence and everyone knows that."

"People tend to forget that the Tamils who stayed back suffered much more than the ones who went abroad," he says. "They have the right to be rehabilitated first. They have the first right to every resource."

"Our refugees are all over the world," Chandrahassan says. "Nowhere have we been so well treated as we have been in India. The UN calls this the best model of refugee welfare anywhere in the world. We will always be grateful."

Images: Top: Sri Lankan Tamils at the Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation office in Chennai. Below: Refugees at the Mandapam camp. Photographs: A Ganesh Nadar/Rediff.com

A Ganesh Nadar in Chennai