Home is a refugee camp in Tamil Nadu

Life was irreversibly altered for many thousands of Tamils when thick black fumes consumed their homes and their lives in July 1983. But unheard and uncared for – except as an irritant or an occasional political embarrassment – Sri Lanka’s Tamil refugees are making Tamil Nadu their home.

Most of them, over 100,000 in number consider Tamil Nadu their permanent home – some quarter century after the ethnic fires.

Strangely, as the Sri Lankan government launched an ambitious resettlement plan for those who fled their homes due to the outbreak of violence post Mavil Aru, forgotten were those who braved the seas to land in Rameshwaram post 1983, cutting their umbilical chord from Mother Lanka amidst tears and fears.

“We had no choice but to flee. We did not want to leave our homes. But now we don’t wish to return,” was the cryptic reply of Thangamathy Sirinivas (46), who was just a young bride when she fled to South India in a rickety old boat with her husband. Since then, they have raised their children inside a camp and come to accept that beyond the camp lay uncertainly and death.

Refugee policy of ‘resettlement’ : But some 24 years later when the government introduced a new refugee policy of ‘resettlement’ under the stewardship of Disaster Relief Services Minister, Rishard Bathiudeen, the policy stands on wobbly feet, for it excludes the Sri Lankans who fled to Tamil Nadu.

This silence in policy, importantly enough, marks a clear departure from the tone set by a 2002 government initiative, which sought to repatriate those living in more than 130 camps scattered in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

The reluctance however, is mutual. As much as the political reluctance of the Sri Lankan state that prevents repatriation moves, across the Palk Straits, the refugees themselves are apprehensive about retuning home.

Sathyavathi, a 66-year-old refugee living in a tiny refugee home close to Chennai felt that having made Chennai her home, unwillingly then, it was pointless now to return home. “We made this camp our home. Our children braved the seas to seek refuge in Tamil Nadu. If we go back, our lives will be consumed by the violence there.”

Without basic facilities : The camps are typical refugee camps – with not even the basic amenities. But these people, having fled their own homes – some, rather comfortable homes in northern Sri Lanka – prefer the cadjan roofs in Tamil Nadu above their heads.

“I never thought of ending up as a refugee. We had a three bed roomed house in Chavakachcheri. But I have forgotten my home bed. I don’t want to live in perpetual fear for that’s what Sri Lanka can offer us,” adds Sathyavathi.

It is not just the basic amenities they lack in their camp homes. They cannot find employment, and live in poverty. Education for the young is a problem. It is a hard bargain, but the refugees have one guarantee that binds them to their camp homes – that they will not fall victim to shell attacks and turn to ashes from aerial bombing.

“You have no idea of the mortal fear that drove us away – we were then Sri Lankans. Then why were we driven out and never taken back?” asks Illiyappa (56), angry about the failure of successive Sri Lankan governments to assist them to return, to resettle and continue their lives in their original villages and towns.

The sentiment among many in the older generation of refugees is that too much water has already flowed under the bridge. With their fleeing, some irreversible conditions apply to them. There are legalities to be dealt with, in order to return. But 25 years inside a camp home, has broken their will to return. “Our country did not take any measures to help us return. Now we will die here,” said Kanakapullai Vaheesan (61).

Despite the occasional harassment and the obvious lack of options, the refugees feel that they are indeed better off in the relative safety of the South Indian camps.

A direct contrast : This is in direct contrast to the refugees’ own sentiments expressed as recently as 2002, when a majority of those living in Tamil Nadu volunteered to repatriate under a government scheme. Some 6,000 refugees returned to Sri Lanka at that time.

“That was in the afterglow of the Ceasefire Agreement,” says R. Sampanthan, the parliamentary group leader of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). “There was hope then. The conditions are very different now.”

Perhaps the larger issue is that, having been left in limbo for up to two decades, these refugees have now come to consider Tamil Nadu their permanent home.

“Our children do not know Sri Lanka,” says Sugunan Kishor, a Jaffna Tamil living in a camp just outside Madras. “They identify themselves with Tami Nadu. Some are married and settled there. To them, Sri Lanka is only their parents’ home and nothing more. We were hopeful of returning after 2002. But with the increased violence, we have no desire now to return.” Kishor once fished for a living, and he recalls with sadness how his once-fervent wish to “return home” has died.

“I have my parents living in the northern district of Mullaitivu. I will never be reunited with them.”

Lack of government efforts : For Vellamma Kadirsamy, a 56-year-old woman who has lived in the same camp as Kishor for several years; the lack of government efforts to repatriate, coupled with the now-intensified war, signifies a complete separation in the minds of many refugees. “Any hope of returning home to Sri Lanka is now over. We have nothing to go there for,” she says. “Our children are here. Some members of our families living there warn us against our return.”

According to Western People’s Front Leader Mano Ganesan, “Most refugee children in Tamil Nadu now have access to education. Though certainly conditions of living need to be improved, but some kind of continuity in life happens there. Why should they upset everything and return to this simmering volcano?” he queries, insisting that human safety is of paramount importance.

While Colombo has been unsure about what to do with the Tamil Nadu refugees, India has done little better.

Official Indian estimates claim that besides those Sri Lankans living in the designated refugee camps, 25,000 or more live outside.

Political pussyfooting : Besides these, there are also around 2,000 undocumented Sri Lankan migrants detained in ‘special’ camps, who are liable for prosecution under Indian migration and anti-terrorism laws. In March last year, finally, the Tamil Nadu police took steps to issue identity cards to Sri Lankan refugees who have been living in camps for more than 12 years.

However, the problem does not end there. The social disconnect and the political pussyfooting apart, the refugees themselves have now submitted themselves to their irreversible fate. They know, a return to Sri Lanka may not happen during their lifetime. And even if it becomes possible, they fear the consequences of such a return where they would have to pick up the threads of their life and build it on the rubble of July 1983.


Article Compiled By: Satya Satvika, Intern- HRDI