Humans, not refugees: Sri Lankan Tamils feel at home in Dravida land, yet have grievances
Sri Lankan Tamils living in Tamil Nadu camps rue the lack of jobs and the fact that they remain refugees.
'Refugee' came directly from the French word 'réfugié' with a very specific meaning: it referred to Protestants who fled France following the revocation in 1685 of the Edict of Nantes, Merriam-Webster.com informs us.
The Edict of Nantes (French: édit de Nantes) was signed on April 13, 1598, by King Henry IV and granted the minority Calvinist Protestants of France, also known as Huguenots, substantial rights in the nation, which was predominantly Catholic.
Centuries since, displaced by man-made wars and catastrophes, people burdened by their losses, dreams, and baggage have been journeying in search of countries where they can rest their burdens and think about building a future from scratch.
Jump cut to the present.
Chennai, June 24, 2023.
We run into R Nickson, a Sri-Lankan Tamil, who is put up at the rehabilitation camp at Thumbalahalli dam in Dharmapuri district at Semmozhi Poonga in Chennai, the venue of a food festival organized to coincide with the World Refugee Day. The amiable young man with sharp eyes, hair combed back and in casuals had a flicker of disagreement with the prefix 'Refugees' propelling the Food Festival.
"Why can't it be simply 'Food Festival, instead of Refugee Food Festival?'" he asks.
Nickson was standing among Sri Lankan stalls where the traditional Sri Lankan Sothi (Coconut milk dish) and other dishes were being sold. He quickly sought to recall his past.
"My parents arrived here in a boat from war-torn Sri Lanka in 1991," he said. His mother was carrying him at the time. Although, away from his homeland, he was born on Tamil soil.
"I've lived in India since then," he added.
Today, Nickson has a Bachelor's degree in English Literature. He also has a Master's degree in Sociology. He works with an NGO.
"We, people from Sri Lanka, do travel to our homeland where our past lies devastated. We can't stay there for a long time. We find ourselves as refugees there as well. We go and quickly return," he noted.
Where he and others return to is a rehabilitation camp in Dharmapuri that shelters over 200 families. Basic amenities are sorely lacking here.
"For the over 200 families we have only 15 public toilets. Many of the toilets are defunct. As a result, men were forced to defecate in the open," Nickson said.
Drinking water for the families is supplied by a non-governmental organisation. A can of water costs Rs 5. It's difficult for most families to make ends meet.
Nickson's contract with the NGO ends this month end. "I'll be jobless and will have to find a new job after this month."
That said, Nickson is pleased with the initiatives the Tamil Nadu government has taken to improve the lives of Sri Lankan Tamils living in rehabilitation camps. Tamil Nadu has over 100 rehabilitation camps housing over 64,000 such people.
"First and foremost, we've at least been allotted houses to live in," Nickson said.
61-year-old Manivel Pillai Antony, also a Sri Lankan Tamil from Jaffna, agrees with Nickson.
"I'm thankful to India and its people for receiving us with warm hearts," he said. "This land ensured my children a good education. They lead a decent life now. We live in a 10x10 ft house allotted by the government. We also have ration cards and an Aadhaar card. A minor complaint is that we don't have a voter ID because we are still not considered Indian citizens."
Vasanthi, 32 laments that "in 1990, we were exiled from Sri Lanka, as the civil war intensified. India gave us a safe place to start a new life. Here we have a roof over our heads and food to sustain us but we have other issues like finding a job. Moreover, we're not given citizenship. We wish to get back to our motherland, someday. To live in a country as a refugee for 30 years is agonizing."
SC Chandrahasan, founder, Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation, said that there are 106 rehabilitation camps in Tamil Nadu. The government pays the head of a refugee family Rs 1,500 per month, his partner gets Rs 1,000 and each children Rs 750.
The children usually go to government schools. The parents are keen that their children should get a decent education, though they do menial jobs for survival.
The refugees are permitted to go out of the camp at 6 am. They were expected to be back by 6 pm. They are shown some leniency since some of the contractual work will not end at 6 pm and are allowed to stretch their return till 9 pm.
"It's true the houses in which the refugees live are too old. The government is constructing new houses for them after demolishing the old ones," he said.
The organisation was launched in 1984. Chandrahasan said all the members of the outfit are cent percent literate.