So near, yet so far: Tamil predicament in Sri Lanka

If the Sri Lankan Navy believes that it can create a Berlin Wall in the Palk Strait, it is living in a fool’s paradise.
So near, yet so far: Tamil predicament in Sri Lanka

Colombo Telegraph, the internet newspaper, dated April 26, 2022, had an absorbing article entitled ‘The New Tamil Refugees from the North-East to Tamil Nadu: New Bonds in Troubled Times’ authored by N Lohathayalan and S Ratnajeevan Hoole. As popular protests mount day by day against the fascist regime, the Tamils, who are the worst sufferers, are naturally trying to come to India as refugees. But the Sri Lankan Navy enters the scene; the escapees are detained in mid-sea, produced in a court of law, which imposes a fine on them; and then they are allowed to go home.

If the Sri Lankan Navy believes that it can create a Berlin Wall in the Palk Strait, it is living in a fool’s paradise. Like the famous Berlin Wall which collapsed in 1989, because of the abiding faith of the Germans in truth, freedom and unity, Sri Lankans even at grave risk and danger would come to India, their protector and saviour for nearly four decades.

In his book ‘Culture and Imperialism’, Edward Said has pointed out that it is one of the “unhappiest characteristics of our age to have produced more refugees, migrants, displaced persons and exiles than ever before in history”. The tragic predicament of the Tamils in Sri Lanka reminds me of what Prof. Valentine Daniel had written a few years ago. The refugee, as Daniel had written, “mistrusts and is mistrusted. In a profound sense, one becomes a refugee even before fleeing the society in which one lives.” To apply Daniel’s statement to contemporary Sri Lanka, sections of Tamils have already become refugees since they have lost trust in the society and in the government. It is only a question of time before they leave the shores of Sri Lanka.

The right to seek asylum is found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the right to enjoy asylum is found in numerous international instruments. At the same time, states which try to persecute their citizens often try to prevent them from leaving their countries. They argue that they have the sovereign right to do so and the claims of the asylum seekers are unjustified. But the right to leave a persecuting state is central to international protection.

One tragic irony of the present situation should be highlighted. The naval action of detaining those who want to come to India should have received international condemnation. The UNHCR should have taken the lead, but so far, its policy can be explained as sphinx-like silence. The UNHCR proudly proclaims “we protect people forced to flee their homes”, but the proclamation is not matched by action on the ground.

In Sri Lanka, the UNHCR involvement dates back to 1987, when the government requested its assistance in the repatriation of refugees from Tamil Nadu. In 1990, it was asked to expand activities and care for the internally displaced people. In 2003, the UNHCR assisted the hill country Tamils to get Sri Lankan citizenship, while continuing its assistance to the Tamils who had migrated to the North and were kept at the relief camps in Vavuniya. When Tsunami hit Sri Lanka, the UNHCR rendered commendable assistance to the affected people. The UNHCR works in collaboration with the Chennai office and helps those who have been voluntarily repatriated.

A few days ago, the Chennai office of the UNHCR organised a meeting of their officers and various scholars to discuss comprehensive solutions strategy for Sri Lankan refugees. An excellent background paper prepared by the UNHCR was circulated. The paper dealt with the background to the refugee presence, the assistance rendered by the Tamil Nadu government, legal and administrative framework, prospects of voluntary repatriation, reintegration and monitoring, problems associated with local integration and what role the UNHCR can play.

Unfortunately, there was no mention of the nation building process in Sri Lanka and the discriminatory treatment meted out to the minorities. The basic problems created by Sri Lanka were not touched upon. In other words, you do the fire-fighting exercise, try to extinguish the fire once it spreads, but do not probe the causes of fire and extinguish the causes once and for all. This policy of turning a Nelson’s eye to the root causes has resulted in the UNHCR hesitating to criticise the Sri Lankan Navy.

I had the good fortune last week to meet and discuss with high officials from UNHCR Office — Geneva, Bangkok and New Delhi — who were in Chennai on an official visit. I asked the straight question. ‘Why is the UNHCR office in Colombo not criticising the naval action of preventing the Tamils from coming to India as refugees?’ There was no convincing answer. I sincerely hope that UNHCR would rise to the occasion, do heart searching, revise its stance, criticise the Sri Lankan policy, compel the government to reverse its stance and render all possible assistance to all who want to reach India as refugees.

The silver lining is the positive attitude which the government and people of Tamil Nadu have taken on the recent developments. The differences among the political parties have been set aside and the Tamil Nadu government has decided to give assistance to all Sri Lankans through the Union government. The Minister in-Charge of the Overseas Tamil Affairs should immediately declare that all those who want to come to Tamil Nadu — irrespective of ethnic origin — are welcome. While all assistance to Sri Lanka should be channeled through the Government of India, the people of Tamil Nadu, at the same time, should express their solidarity with those who are fighting against the brutal regime.

We must take inspiration from our glorious traditions and formulate our present and future course of action. In the Indian tradition, a stranger who comes home is treated as an Athithi and the host is expected to treat him as God, next only to mother, father and teacher. In the Yuddha Kanda of Valmiki Ramayana, when Vibishana approached Rama for asylum, Rama told Sugriva: “O Sugriva, please bring him here. I have granted him fearlessness, whether he is Vibishana or Ravana.” Periyapuranam and Thirukkural contain several references as to how those, who come in search of shelter and livelihood, should be treated.

Tamil poet Kaniyan Poongoundranar, who lived about 3,000 years ago, had a “sense of belonging to every place” and “everyone is our own”. Let us emulate this statement in theory and practice and render all assistance to Sri Lankans in their greatest hour of need.

V Suryanarayan
Founding Director and Senior Professor (Retd.), Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras.

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