With poor conditions in camps, Sri Lankan Tamils remain citizens of no-man’s land

While most of them are refugees from ethnic violence that tore apart Lanka, some are Tamils of Indian origin, who went to the neighbouring country as labourers in tea estates, and were repatriated.

Published: 22nd December 2019 04:52 AM  |   Last Updated: 22nd December 2019 09:27 AM   |  A+A-

A child at a camp for Sri Lankan Tamil refugees near Vellore | S dinesh

Express News Service

MADURAI: The camp conditions are hellish. One must read Pathinathan, who is associated with the literary magazine Kalachuvadu, in this regard. Even if one’s heart is made of stone, it would still melt under the searing heat of reality.

When IPS officers are made in charge of Mandapam Camp, it is called a punishment posting. It is only a temporary phase for them.... But for the inmates, there is no hope whatsoever. It is endlessly bleak.

The petitioners have been in camps for close to 35 years. Keeping them under surveillance and severely restricted conditions and in a state of statelessness for such a long period certainly offends their right under Article 21 of the Constitution of India,” said Madras High Court Justice G R Swaminathan of the camps for Sri Lankan Tamil refugees on June 17. 

He was disposing of a public interest litigation, at Madurai Bench of the HC, filed by 65 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees who sought Indian citizenship.

The ground reality is more painful than his description.

There are close to a lakh Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in the State, of which 59,714 people live in 107 refugee camps and about 30,000 live outside them. While not all the refugees seek Indian citizenship, being left out from the recently enacted Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) has increased the feeling of being a people caught between worlds.

Political parties in Tamil Nadu have long demanded a dual citizenship option for the refugees. While most of them are refugees from the ethnic violence that tore apart Sri Lanka, some are Tamils of Indian origin, who went to the neighbouring country as labourers in tea estates and were repatriated.

Life as refugees involves living under the scrutiny of the Q branch, lack of access to government employment, limited freedom and opportunities. 

As 63-year-old Sundaram at the Melmonavur camp, who came to India in 1990, put it, “We were shocked to know the Indian government brought in a law that denies us citizenship. If we got citizenship, our children could get government jobs, and we could buy land to build our own houses. But all our hopes have gone.”

Many ask why when many foreign countries give citizenship after five or 10 years of stay, India doesn’t give one. ‘‘Having Indian citizenship would definitely make me feel at home but my plan is to move abroad because I don’t see a great future in India,” said 23-year-old Banu Priya (name changed), who teaches English at a private school in Chennai.

‘Were we not persecuted?’

“The CAA rejects us on the grounds that the issue between Sri Lankans and Tamils is based on ethnicity, not religion. But the fact is we are subjected to deprivation in the island nation only because of Sinhalese-Buddhist chauvinism against the minority Tamil Hindus,” said G Ilamaran, a refugee. Admitting that the government of Tamil Nadu had provided the refugees with a spate of support and provisions, he asked why they were denied citizenship.

“Imagine a life of a family of four living in just a 10*15 room for over three decades. Our plight cannot be put in words,” said Mathiazhagan, who came to the Mandapam refugee camp, which can accommodate 5000 people, in the early ’90s.

Anandan, a refugee college student, pointed out he was born in India.

“I have never visited Sri Lanka. How can one term me as a Sri Lankan citizen?” Meanwhile, the return to power of the Rajapaksa brothers in Sri Lanka has caused much fear.

“On the one side, the change of regime has diminished our chances of returning to our motherland, on the other, a new Act has shut the door once and for all. So, we have no other option but kill ourselves,” lamented a young resident of the Melmonavur camp.

Life of restrictions

“If a refugee wants to leave a camp for any purpose, he or she must approach the Village Assistants (thalayaris) to get a recommendation letter from the Village Administrative Officer (VAO). This has to be approved by the District Revenue Inspector (DRI), who is in charge of the refugees, and should be permitted by the Rehabilitation Revenue Inspector (RRI) and a Tahsildar cadre officer,” said Mathiazhagan of the Mandapam camp.  

“This is not just to go out for work. If we want to apply for an increase in cash dole when children reach the age of six or 12, to register for inclusion of a child in the refugee card, removal or inclusion of names on records relating to refugee camps, for gas connection, and even for the passport if we wish to go back to Sri Lanka,” he said.

After all this, the Q branch police could decide to deny permission.

“Worse, at every stage, we have to bribe officials,” said Mathiazhagan’s sister Anna Ranjani. 

T Chandrakumar, a former resident of Mandapam camp, said, “We will be allowed to go out of the camp at 8am on the condition that we would return by 6 pm that day. If a refugee got a job in a far-off place, we should report to local police.” 

“We are not even allowed to open a bank account and to save our money,” he pointed out.

Advocate R Santhosh, who helps refugees, added that the acquisition of immovable properties is stated to be impermissible without prior permission of the Reserve Bank of India.

While some have the option of moving abroad, leaving means they cannot return to India. ‘‘I did not attend my brother’s wedding or my father’s funeral (both abroad),” said Banu Priya. 

What jobs? 

“Most of us are absorbed in the semi-skilled and daily wage works like building painting, masonary or carpentry,” Chandrakumar said.

Ramachandran, who has two young sons born in the refugee camp, said, “Earlier education was a nightmare for refugee children. But now the scenario is slowly changing.”

“Almost all the children were able to complete school education, but when it comes to higher education, colleges hesitate to admit students due to the tedious process,” he claimed.

“Over 17 youths have completed degrees and are working for daily wages as painters. Even in private companies they are refusing to provide permanent jobs,” K Ravindra Kumar at a camp in Krishnagiri fumed.

Banu Priya too said opportunities were bleak and there is no professional growth beyond a point.

She added that her youngest sister, who studied Travel and Tourism, faced difficulties in becoming an air-hostess as she was not an Indian. Banu Priya also faced difficulties in doing her Masters in Madras University.

(With inputs from Omjasvin MD (Chennai), Baranidharan C (Erode), R Sivakumar (Vellore), S Sivaguru (Krishnagiri) and Vignesh V (Madurai).

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