The dirt road leading to the Sri Lankan refugee camp at Kottur in Pollachi is littered with trash and debris. Stray dogs lie along the stretch, basking in the sunlight, watching dully as people move about. It rained a few days ago and mosses have grown on the metal sheet roofs of the ghetto-like tenements, which the refugees call their home.
Even as this reporter was taking in the scene that lay before him, a young Sri Lankan refugee in 20s pulled over his motorcycle. During the course of an uneasy conversation, the youth says he was one of the six persons taken in by the ‘Q’ branch for questioning in connection with a people smuggling racket, which the sleuths busted in May this year.
Looking about suspiciously, the youth says the ‘Q’ branch alleged they had promised to ferry a few refugees from the camp to Australia in a boat and taken money from them. But he refuses to enter into the details. “I have been advised by a pro-Eelam political party leader not to talk about the detention or the case. I have nothing more to say,” he says, before beating a hasty retreat.
Australia is the buzz word here. Scores of refugees believe that the land down under holds answers to all their problems. Once the men-folk are out of ear-shot, three women — two of whom had fled Sri Lanka in 2006 and another in 1996 — say that they had neighbours who escaped to Australia. “Some made it and some didn’t. It’s a risk we all are willing to take,” says 60-year-old Prabhavathi.
“We speak to some of them (who travelled illegally to Australia) over phone. They are quite happy there,” says Prabhavathi, before adding ruefully, “But some, we have never heard from again.” In her eyes, the smugglers are merely a service provider. “Smugglers provide a service, for which many refugees are willing to pay. They are not forcing us to board dinghies. People of means and desirous of leaving, do so with the help of the smugglers,” she says.
“If we had the money, we would go too,” says Sumathi (30), adding that refugees were willing to return to Sri Lanka as well.
Poor wages, lack of job opportunities and scarce chances of moving up the social ladder make their eyes glitter at the hint of greener pastures abroad. Most eke out a living in the ghetto by working as painters, carpenters and daily wage labourers. “Our wages are very low. The few job opportunities available here do not afford us much scope to create wealth for ourselves. Back in Sri Lanka, we had our own farmlands,” she says.
Confined to a strip of land away from home, most reminisce about their country and the day they would head back to their homes, far from the abject poverty that has forced many men and younsters to take to drugs and drinks. “The biggest reason for us wanting to leave India is the pervasiveness of alcohol. We are constantly subjected to domestic abuse and we feel that things will be better when we head back,” says Prabhavathi.
There is also plenty of resentment about what the refugees deem to be the highhandedness of the police. Though residents here don’t feel marginalised on being confined to the refugee camps, they are annoyed at being forced to report to the police and get permission before moving out of the camp for extended periods of time.
“We would love to go back to Sri Lanka. We don’t know if we will receive any compensation or land, but it is after all our home. Everyone wants to go back home, now that the war is over,” says Sumathi.