Sri Lanka: Why are the Tamil Refugees Not Returning?

21 May, 2013    ·   3938

V. Suryanarayan explores the reasons behind the inability of the Tamil refugees to return to their rightful homes

A few years ago, Kasi Ananthan, the Poet Laureate of Tamil Eelam, wrote, “How long may we stay in another man’s land?” He added, “The parrot and the woodpecker may return to their nests without hindrance, but we, the Tamil refugees, may not”.

Four years have elapsed since the decimation of the Tigers and the killing of Prabhakaran. Soon after the war, Colombo’s priority was the rehabilitation of internally displaced persons. That task has been complete. Even then there is no sign of the refugees returning home. According to the Policy Note on Refugees submitted by the Government in the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly, as on March 31, 2013, 19,658 families consisting of 66,198 refugees are staying in 112 camps located in 26 districts of the State. In addition, there are 13,288 families consisting of 34,826 refugees staying outside the camps. At present there are 38 refugees in two Special Camps in Poonamalee and Chengelpet. They are suspected to have militant connections and the Government feels that they cannot be allowed free movement.

As far as legal formalities are concerned, rules and regulations have been streamlined. The refugees who want to return home are given an “exit permit” by the Collector’s office. The Sri Lankan Deputy High Commission in Chennai gives them the necessary travel documents, in addition to birth certificates for the children born in the refugee camps. The UNHCR provides free air tickets from Chennai/Tiruchi to Colombo, receives them on their arrival and provides them with modest financial assistance to start their lives anew in Sri Lanka. In spite of all these initiatives, according to the Policy Note, only 11, 532 persons have gone back to Sri Lanka. The tragedy of the situation is that many refugees have fallen prey to touts; they try to migrate to Australia after paying huge amounts to human traffickers. Indeed, many have lost their lives in the perilous journey between India and the X-Mas Island. 

From the point of view of the refugees, one bright feature should be highlighted. There is absolutely no pressure on them to return to Sri Lanka. This is in sharp contrast to the tragic days soon after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, when the Tamil Nadu Government exerted direct and indirect pressure on them to return home. A few human rights organizations rightly felt that the repatriation was “involuntary” and the process violated the cardinal principle of the International Refugee Law, the principle of Non-Refoulment. In a statesmanlike gesture, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao permitted UNHCR presence in Chennai to verify the voluntariness of repatriation, thereby diffusing an ugly situation.

It will be in India’s interest if the return to normalcy in Sri Lanka is accompanied by the repatriation of the refugees. Such a stance would be in conformity with India’s well-known refugee policy – refugees will be given asylum in India, but they will have to return when normalcy returns in their homeland. Needless to say, one index of the return to normalcy in Sri Lanka will be the dawn of the day when the refugees will gladly return home.

Why are the refugees not returning to Sri Lanka? Many feel uncertain about their future in the island. Life in refugee camps is definitely not a bed of roses; in fact, they have come from a poor country to a poorer country. But what makes Tamil Nadu attractive is the fact that there is no feeling of insecurity. And what is more, the present Government has taken several steps to enable the refugees to lead a “life of dignity, safety and security”. In addition to financial doles, refugees are given free accommodation, free medical aid, free rice up to 20 kgs and free schooling for their children. In addition they are permitted to work in order to supplement their income. Moreover, all welfare schemes applicable to the poorer sections in the State are also made applicable to refugees.

It would be a good idea if the Sri Lankan Government, with the co-operation of the Indian Government, could link the reconstruction work in the Tamil areas of the island with the provision of necessary technical skills to the refugees in the camps. A survey of manpower requirement should immediately be undertaken and this should be followed by providing technical training in the camps. Once technical skills are provided the refugees can return to Sri Lanka as worthwhile productive citizens.