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'The situation in Sri Lanka is not alarming for refugees to return'

June 23, 2016 13:37 IST

'I am not saying the situation is either good or conducive'

'What I am trying to do is to place all the facts before the refugees and just nudge them to take a call' 

Image: A file photograph of Tamil civilians at a refugee camp on the outskirts of the northern Sri Lankan town of Vavuniya. Photograph: Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/Reuters/Pool.

A 28-minute documentary, No Longer A Refugee, tells the story of Sri Lanka Tamils who have returned home after spending many years as refugees in Tamil Nadu. According to one estimate, there are over 65,000 65,000 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees still living in nearly 110 refugee camps in Tamil Nadu.

The documentary was produced by Ashok Gladston Xavier, a Chennai-based academic, on behalf of the Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation or OfERR, a self-help group run by refugees since 1983 and which has offices in Chennai and Colombo. The documentary will be shown in all refugee camps in Tamil Nadu, and where not possible CDs will be supplied to refugee camps for exhibition.

After the documentary was screened in Chennai recently, S C Chandrahasan, founder of OfERR, said out of the 65,000 refugees still in India, some 1,700 of them want to go back to Sri Lanka immediately and that he is in touch with Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj to arrange for their return. 

“We had asked Swaraj to arrange for ships to send back these refugees and the minister had promised to look into it. We had also asked the minister to re-start the ferry services between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka to facilitate their return. Since these are all poor refugees, the government has to ensure their return by arranging for their travel free of cost,” Chandrahasan said. "The situation is fast improving in Sri Lanka, and this documentary is a soothsayer’s message to the refugees who are living in India."

In a conversation with R Ramasubramanian, Xavier said, "My documentary attempts to find answers to those frequently asked questions from Tamil refugees who are still in India."

What made you produce this documentary?

I wanted to find out the challenges faced by those refugees who had returned to their motherland, and to find answers for refugees who are still living in camps in Tamil Nadu.

When and where did you shoot the documentary?

I visited Sri Lanka in April-May 2015 and in April 2016. I had gone to at least seven places including Colombo, Vavuniya, Killinochi, Jaffna, Mannar, Mullaitivu and spoke to those refugees who had come back from India.

How many of them have returned and where are they living now?

All of those who have returned are living in their respective homes. Over 8,000 refugees had returned to their places after the end of the war in 2009. I had met over 200 of them and had a detailed discussion with at least 85 from among them. This includes 60 women.

Why did you name your documentary No longer a refugee

(I named the film No longer a refugee) Because those who have returned started feeling that they are not refugees any more. They are coming out of that tag or taboo, whatever you may call it.

One of them interviewed in the documentary is a youth named Mayuran. He is from Mullaitivu. He came out of his house when he was just 4-years-old and landed in India. Today, he has MA and MPhil degrees and when he reached his home (in Sri Lanka) after 26 years, he was thrilled and said "I am no longer a refugee."

What are the FAQs from the refugees still living in Tamil Nadu?

They have several questions and the major ones are about their livelihood, the army’s presence, return of land taken over by the army, human security, education, etc.

What answers did you find in Sri Lanka?

The main problem for those who returned to their homeland is documentation. To avail all services like medical, education, etc, you need a national ID card first. For getting a national ID card several other documents are needed. This includes birth certificate and if the person does not have a birth certificate then his parent’s marriage certificate and their birth certificates are must.

The problem arises when the marriages are not registered and the children are born in refugee camps. These children have to get their birth certificates from the Sri Lankan deputy high commission in Chennai and if they do not register, then they will be deemed to be stateless.

What are the other problems likely to be faced by the refugees once they return to their motherland?

Education is one area. Since the education systems are quite different, they need to obtain what is known as an equivalent certificate from the University Grants Commission of Sri Lanka. This has to be further certified by other local and district level administrations. This is a must for getting a job. 

Livelihood is another issue. In India, the refugees were able to do every possible job. They were divided into two categories -- skilled and unskilled. 

Health is not a problem. Primary and secondary level health treatments are provided by the government free of cost and quality treatment is available for all. Moreover, the clean environment is an added advantage because the lack of pollution ensures the health of the refugees who return home.

IMAGE: Mayuran came to India as a refugee when he was just 4-years-old. After 26 years, he returned to his home in Sri Lanka's Mullaitivu district, armed with MA and MPhil degrees.

What about the return of lands taken over by the army and the army’s presence in civilian areas?

In April 2015, the (Sri Lankan) army had returned 600 acres of land in Jaffna to nearly 500 original owners and a steering committee was set up to look in to this issue. This is an ongoing process. 

As far as the army’s presence is concerned, yes, the army columns are there. But the army is not interfering in civil issues. There is no frisking of individuals and checking of any area is generally a one-time affair. So these are some of the major issues. We try to understand them and facilitate answers for the same.

Can you say that the situation is not alarming anymore?

The situation is surely not alarming in Sri Lanka.

Is the situation good or conducive for the refugees to return?

(With a little pause) I am not saying the situation is either good or conducive. I am only asking the refugees to ascertain the situation with available reports, apply their mind independently and take a call. But I do believe that returning to their homeland is one of the durable solutions for refugees.

IMAGE: Sri Lankan Tamil refugees who have returned home fishing off the Mannar coast.

So in a way with this documentary you are encouraging the refugees to go back to their homeland?

No, I am not using the word encouraging...

Why are you shying away from using the word?

No, that's not the issue. What I am trying to do is to place all the facts before the refugees and just nudge them to take a call. That’s all.

IMAGE: Refugees who have returned to Sri Lanka congregate at the church in Mannar.

Have you spoken to all those concerned in Sri Lanka? Were there any impediments from the authorities concerned?

I have spoken to all the stakeholders. I have spoken to the chief minister of Jaffna, various Tamil people, Sri Lankan government officials and, of course, with the army top brass in the Tamil areas. There were no impediments or troubles from any side and I had a wide range of talks, discussions and consultations with all those concerned in this issue.  

What are your next step vis-a-vis your film?

This is my seventh documentary on the refugees’ issue. I will try to screen the documentary in the refugee camps here in Tamil Nadu and try to supply the CDs to those concerned.

R Ramasubramanian in Chennai