Sri Lankan Refugees in India and the Elam War
Syed Ali Mujtaba
The Elam war in Sri Lanka is entering a decisive phase. A string of defeats by the Liberation of the Tamil Elam has exposed the venerability of the LTTE to sustain the Elam war for a long time to come. On the other hand, some spectacular victories by the Sri Lankan armed forces suggest that the Northern provinces would soon be amalgamated into the Sri Lankan state. If and when that happens, it remains to be seen what kind of devolution of power the Sinhala government offers to its Tamil citizens that have been waging a war for it for more than twenty years now.
As far as India is concerned, its hands-off policy towards Sri Lanka has led the Elam War to drift towards the one nation state concept. However, India has stakes in the welfare of the Sri Lanka Tamils because the disturbed conditions in the Island nation have ominous portents on the Indian soil. One among them being the presence of large number of Tamil refugees living in camps spread across Tamil Nadu and Orissa. It would be in India’s interest to have them repatriated at the earliest into Sri Lanka so that the burden on the government’s exchequer could be eased to some extent.
Sri Lankan Tamil refugees that are residing in Tamil Nadu could be classified into four categories. One, those who are living in the camps set up by the Tamil Nadu government. Second, those staying with their relatives, friends or even independently, third, those who are security threats and are kept in the special camps. Fourth, those who come with valid travel document but continue to stay renewing their visas.
Sri Lankan Tamil refugees have arrived in Tamil Nadu in several phases. The first phase was from 1983-87 when one lakh 48,000 refugees arrived in Tamil Nadu. These refuges started coming in the aftermath of the Colombo riots that broke out in 1983. Many among them left Tamil Nadu following the India- Sri Lanka accord of 1887.
The second batch of refugees came during 1989 – 91. This was following the return of the IPKF from Sri Lanka and the resumption of hostilities in the Island nation. During this phase nearly one lakh 22 thousand refugees came to Tamil Nadu.
In the third phase; 1996-2005 about 22,000 refugees came to Tamil Nadu. In 2006, when the hostilities escalated about 18,600 more Tamil refuges arrived in Tamil Nadu.
In the aftermath of the India-Sri Lanka accord that’s during 1987 to 89, some 25,000 refugees voluntarily returned to the Island. However, many stayed back during that period and some left for Europe and other countries.
After assassination of Rajiv Gandhi during 1992 to 95, then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha ordered the closure of 50 camps in the state and forcibly sent 52,180 refugees to Sri Lanka.
After the ceasefire agreement in 2002 between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government, about six thousand refuges left Tamil Nadu for Sri Laka.
Sri Lankan Tamil refugees are staying in 123 camps located in different spots of Tamil Nadu. There are two camps set up in Orissa for them. They house those who supported the IPKF and after its withdrawal too had to leave Sri Lanka.
There are 71,600 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees staying in camps as of now. It’s estimated that the total number of Sri Lankan refugees living out side the camp could vary from 20,000 to 100,000.
Refugees face lot of hardship while traveling from their place to Tamil Nadu. They pay huge money to be dropped near the Indian waters from where they are picked up by the India fishermen who clandestinely ferry them to the knee deep waters of the Indian shores.
Sometimes the Sri Lankan refugees are dropped on the sand dunes that emerge in water during low tide. Those who could not be picked up from there get washed away in the sea during the high tides that that inundates the sand dunes.
On an average, a journey from Sri Lanka to India would cost about 30,000 to 50,000 rupees plus discomforts, humiliation and many more such hardships.
After the arrival the refugees have to undergo the arduous task as they have to undergo a mandatory police screening. This is extremely essential because the LTTE exploit the situation and infiltrate into India through the refugees channel. The police say that the large influx of the refugees makes it very difficult to segregate the genuine one with those connected with the LTTE. They justify the exercise citing the example of six of the accused in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case belonging to those living in the camps.
Except Mandapam camp in Rameswaran where there is an inbuilt infrastructure since the British days as it housed the enchanted laborers meant to be sent to Sri Lankan plantation areas, none of the other camps have adequate amenities and are in a pathetic state. There is no infrastructure, hygiene facilities and very little medical care facilities are made available to them.
All the adult Sri Lankan refugees get Rs 800. The government has recently hiked this amount from Rs 400 to Rs 800 per month. The Sri Lankan refugees residing in camps are allowed to take up employment and can take up work between 10 AM to 6 PM. Most of them work on the railway track that’s being converted from meter gauge to the broad gauge between Rameswaram and Madurai. Some of them work at brick kilning, others lay cables, make baskets and do painting.
Education is a major problem for the children living in these camps. There is inadequate primary and secondary education facility available. However, the situation on this front has improved a lot for better since these camps were set up. The Tamil Nadu government has recently announced five seats for the children of these refugees in the state run professional colleges. It has also directed the government aided colleges to enroll the students who have refugee status.
In spite of ethnic and cultural proximity the refugees have no interaction with local public. Outsiders are not allowed to visit the camps. Incidence of broken family leads to many social issues in these camps. The strict police vigilance make these camps look like open prison.
There is no doubt the Sri Lankan refuges are much better lot when compared to their counterparts elsewhere in the country. However, their sheer presence has thrown up many challenges before the Indian government. In wake of the plethora of problem that country faces in wake of it, India should formulate its own policies with regard to the refugees and how to shelter in the country. India should sign the refuges convention and allow the UNCHR and NGOs to play a role in dealing with the refugees. India may only look at the refugee issue from the humanitarian consideration and not as leverage meant for its foreign policy consideration. As far Tamil refugees are concerned, India should initiate a security dialogue with Sri Lanka in this regard and see their early repatriation.
The discussion would not be complete without mentioning that in the aftermath of the Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1985, there was massive upsurge against the Sikh community in Delhi and else in the country. However, on contrary to that in the wake of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1989, not a single Sri Lankan Tamil refugee camp was touched in Tamil Nadu. This in spite of the fact that six person involved in the killing of the Indian Prime Minister were registered members of the refugee camps. This perhaps is a reflection on the character of the people that live cross the Vindhyachal Mountain in our country.
Syed Ali Mujtaba is a working journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org