Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka neither want to go back to their homeland nor do they want to stay on in India, forcing them to undertake perilous sea journeys
Shivani Chaturvedi | September 8, 2016 | Tamil Nadu
In June, 27-year-old Sujatha, who was seven months’ pregnant, and her five-year-old daughter Ammu, set out on a nerve-racking journey from India on a boat to Australia. They boarded the boat with 42 other Tamils from Sri Lanka. There was no guarantee that they would make it to the land of their dreams. However, they were lucky and are still alive – not in Australia, though, but in Indonesia’s Aceh region. The boat, with 44 Sri Lankan asylum seekers, was stranded off the coast of Aceh as its engine broke down. They were allowed to disembark at Aceh.
Most of these bedraggled people were from the Bhavanisagar refugee camp in Erode district of Tamil Nadu.
Who are these refugees? The two-decade long civil strife in Sri Lanka in seventies had led to the exodus of Tamils from the country. Though it has ended with the death of Tamil Tigers leader V Prabhakaran in May 2009, the refugees haven’t returned.
SC Chandrahasan, founder of Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation (OfERR), a non-profit organisation run by and for refugees since 1984, says that originally around 100 people were to leave on this boat, which dropped people in Ache. On that fateful day only 44 could make it while the rest – who were travelling in another bus to reach the coast – were stopped at a police checkpoint. Because of this the boat was not overcrowded. The agents, who had arranged their journey, had provided them food as well.
At present, Sujatha, her daughter and others remain stranded in a faraway land in the temporary shelter. Though authorities are providing them food, they continue to face uncertainty.
The refugees are not keen to settle in Indonesia, and Australia has refused to accept them as asylum seekers. Even the Indian government might not take them back, says Chandrahasan. The refugees are not willing to return to Sri Lanka and even if they agree, who would take care of the logistics and other expenses, he says.
Chandrahasan says Sujatha and other boat-borne Tamils had fallen into the hands of human traffickers, who had resurfaced after lying low for a few years. The smugglers or ‘agents’ [as the refugees address them] had been spreading rumours that Australia would relax the norms for asylum seekers after the elections and hence it was the right time to go there. They had promised the refugees that they will land safely on Australian coast just when the new government is assuming charge. “As the elections in Australia were nearing at that time, the agents [smugglers] were in a hurry to start the journey and hence did not wait for others,” Chandrahasan said.
The human traffickers, considered a part of a global crime network, target refugees living in camps. They promise them safe passage across the Indian Ocean and guarantee of Australian citizenship.
Peace has purportedly returned to Sri Lanka, but most of the refugees are not willing to return. They claim that the Tamils, who have gone back, have faced harassment. Some, they allege, have even been tortured by the police.
Sri Lankan refugees like Sujatha are ready to risk their lives for a green pasture like Australia. However, not many can make it. According to OfERR estimates, more than 500 people have lost their lives in the sea journeys to the promised lands – many in the mid-sea boat capsize tragedies. Many a time, refugees have been rescued and brought back to the camps after the fishing boats in which they had taken to the seas would get stranded.
The fear of death lurks in every human heart but for these refugees, the anxiety of uncertain future pushes them to take the dangerous journey.
Lack of clear policy
At the moment, a permanent solution to this human crisis looks too distant. Thirumurugan Gandhi, a Chennai-based activist and political commentator, says, “Tamils in Sri Lanka are still subjected to violence by the armed forces and the government. Sri Lanka claims that peace has returned but the victims are oppressed.” Indian politicians are not doing anything on the refugee issue, and there is no comprehensive policy for refugees in India, he laments.
A senior Tamil Nadu government official, not wishing to be named, says repatriation of Sri Lankan refugees is a sensitive issue. It is complicated because the government can neither decide that they should return to Sri Lanka nor could it push them. They should voluntarily go back to their homeland, he said.
He says, “The associations of Sri Lankan refugees have been meeting us on this issue. The government works keeping in mind three points: First, in the native country of the refugees, the social and economic situation should be conducive for them to return. Second, they themselves should be feeling confident about their prospects in the native country. Third, such return can only be voluntary.”
“The Sri Lankan government may say peace has returned there but still people are convinced they won’t return,” he adds.
The Tamil Nadu government is in touch with the centre and various Sri Lankan refugee associations to facilitate return of Tamils with dignity. However, he said much depends on the Sri Lankan government’s approach to the issue.
The refugees are not unanimous on the question of return. Some say that they want to return but would first wait and watch the situation in Sri Lanka. Others say there is nothing for them to go back to as they were defeated in their homeland. They say they get all facilities here, their children are settled and some have even bought land here – though buying land is illegal for them.
On the issue of refugees leaving the Indian coast illegally, the official says the state government has provided them all facilities and yet they aspire to go to Australia. “In the process, if they violate Indian laws, then the law has to take its own course.” It is understood that of late, the state government has become strict. Earlier the police would arrest only human traffickers. However, of late they have even arrested a few men and women who were trying to flee the Indian soil.
Kamal Mitra Chenoy, who teaches at School of International Studies, JNU, New Delhi, argues that now with stricter immigration rules, it was not easy for the refugees to return to their homeland, if their country is not willing to take them back. “Had the Sri Lankan refugees gone earlier, it would have been easier for them,” he says.
Travails of Sri Lankan Tamils
Rajmanikam, 77, had fled his home in Myliddy, a small town located in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka, in July 1983. He came to India and returned in 1990. Again 18 years later, he returned to Chennai and since then has been living in Tamil Nadu.
He says, “I want to visit my homeland but my land in Myliddy remains occupied by the military. I cannot go there.”
He adds, “We are in touch with those who returned to Sri Lanka. They have advised us not to return. A lot of promises were made by the Sri Lankan government and NGOs, but nothing has been done. Some of those who returned now want to come back. They are still staying in camps, though the government had promised to provide them homes. Those who have money go there, extend their visa and come back.”
“Also, we get reports that military remains deployed in northern and eastern provinces where most Sri Lankan Tamils lived. Why is the military still there years after the war got over?” asks Rajmanikam. “I have no hope that the situation will improve in Sri Lanka for Tamil people,” he says.
Rajmanikam recalls his initial days in Chennai as refugee. He couldn’t find a job. While he used to make a decent earning in Sri Lanka, here he had to do petty jobs to feed his family of four.
Senthil, 58, has been living in the Bhavanisagar refugee camp in Erode since 1990. He is a daily wage earner. His family of five lives in a tiny room. Senthil, who hails from Talaimannar village in the northern province of Sri Lanka, is reluctant to go back. “I left my home, land, everything in Sri Lanka. The government promises to provide facilities there, but I don’t want to go back as the situation still remains the same. There is no chance of the situation improving in our homeland as the Sinhalese government won’t do anything for Tamils,” he says.
Like many other refugees Senthil wants to leave the refugee camp and seek a decent living in a distant country, but he is aware of the danger involved in the journey. He also worries that if he goes to any other country on a Sri Lankan passport and fails to find a job there, he cannot even come back to India as his refugee status would get cancelled.
“In our home in Sri Lanka, I lived with my wife, our children, my parents and siblings,” says a 40-year-old, who did not wish to be named, at the special camp for refugees inside the Trichy central prison. He adds, “My family is still in Sri Lanka. If anybody visits my family, military personnel come home and make inquiries about the visitor. Three years back my son came to meet me at the camp. When he returned, he was troubled by the military.”
Chennai-based refugee activist Hariharan says that in June, five families had fled Sri Lanka to the Mandapam refugee camp in Ramanathapuram, Tamil Nadu, due to harrassment by the Lankan forces.
Trevor Grant, an Australian writer and activist, in an email interaction with Governance Now, says refugees are not willing to go back to Sri Lanka as there is clear evidence, from many respected international bodies, that Tamils returning to Sri Lanka continue to be harassed, and even tortured, by the authorities. The most disturbing thing is that many of these cases have been documented since the new president, Maithripala Sirisena, assumed office in January 2015.
Grant, who has worked closely with Sri Lankan war victims, says the guns are silent but peace has not returned for thousands of Tamils in Sri Lanka, where a military occupation remains in the north and east of the country and the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) continues to see Tamils incarcerated without trial. “There has been a lot of talk about repatriating the tens of thousands of Tamils living in Indian refugee camps but that’s all it is – talk.”
Many Tamils from Sri Lanka have fled on boats from Indian refugee camps, trying to reach Australia. They go there because life is so miserable in these camps. The people have no work rights, no citizenship and no protection from all kinds of abuse, he says.
Grant says, “My on-the-spot investigation into these camps in Tamil Nadu in 2015 showed horrific treatment of refugees. The Australian government treats these people appallingly when they arrive in their territory. One group which came two years ago remains trapped in the hell-hole of the Nauru detention centre, which the Australian government uses as a deterrent for prospective refugees. Several inquiries have shown that the asylum seekers on Nauru, including children, have been subjected to serious abuse, including sexual assault and rape. Many people have also tried to commit suicide.”
He says the Australian government stands condemned by the UN and other human rights agencies for inhumane and degrading treatment as well as torture of asylum seekers. Asylum seekers fleeing persecution here – as is their legal right under the UN Refugee Convention, to which Australia is a signatory – are transported to detention camps on Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. “Australia has arrogantly washed its hands off its responsibilities under international law, yet has the temerity to lecture other countries about their human rights records. The end result of this cruel policy is that thousands of innocent, vulnerable people are suffering permanent physical and psychological damage. And it’s simply because of politics and racism, which still runs deep through the Australian society.”
Chandrahasan talks about the rehabilitation package that has been worked out by his NGO to ensure a well-considered, safe, dignified voluntary and sustainable return.
Human rights lawyer Sudha Ramalingam, who has worked for years for Sri Lankan refugees in special camps, says that people have taken asylum here, and they cannot be sent back unless they opt for it. They have come here due to various reasons, especially the political situation in Sri Lanka, so it would be cruel to push them out from here.
She stressed that India is not a signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the status of refugee or its 1967 Protocol, which aims to protect the social and economic rights assigned to refugees by international laws and agreements. So there is a need for India to sign the UNHCR convention. “Our country says we have not signed the convention but we are hospitable. India takes pride in it. But actually the refugees are still getting step-motherly treatment. The condition at all the refugee camps is pathetic. Prisons have been converted into special camps. That is why people are making attempts to flee,” she says.
(The story appears in the September 1-15, 2016 issue)