Lankan refugees in Tamil Nadu: Of trafficking, dreams and death

State empathy continues to define the living conditions of 65,000 Sri Lankan refugees in 112 camps across Tamil Nadu while traffickers show them the Australian dream only to get them drowned or brought back


Shivani Chaturvedi | September 8, 2014 | Chennai

For 31 years, these refugees have been living in poor condition of the camps. They are also struggling to earn a living and to survive.
For 31 years, these refugees have been living in poor condition of the camps. They are also struggling to earn a living and to survive.

In June this year the Australian government detained a boat with 157 people, including women and children. For nearly a month they were held at sea and then sent to a detention centre on the Pacific island of Nauru, as Australia has recently hardened its asylum policy. Picked up by an Australian customs vessel, the asylum seekers had not been sent back by the Australian government till the time of going to press.

The incident captured world headlines. The group, believed to be mostly ethnic Tamils from Sri Lanka, was on its way to seek asylum in Australia, but had left from Indian shores – from Puducherry.

Soon after this incident, another group of Sri Lankan refugees, also camp inmates from Tamil Nadu, was caught in Kanyakumari district of the state. They were preparing to leave the Indian coast, presumably for Australia, but were picked up by coast guard and brought back.
There have been several such incidents in the past when people from various Sri Lankan refugee camps in Tamil Nadu have been rescued from fishing boats stranded in waters. They are usually brought back and left at the camps.

Life in one such camp at Puzhal, 20 kilometres from Chennai, that Governance Now visited, is an apology. Housed in cramped shanties, men, women and children share bathroom and toilet sheds in one corner of the settlement that is lined with unpaved roads and marked by open drains. Electric wires hang overhead precariously, and dangerously, but life goes on at the Puzhal camp and much so similarly at other such camps.

Little surprise then if inmates of Puzhal and 111 other such camps in Tamil Nadu are willing to put their lives in grave danger and push for one final shot at good life elsewhere.

Several crores of rupees are being spent on is not charity that the government is throwing. It should be a right that should be given, but it is possible only if we sign the (UNHCR) convention.

Sudha Ramalingam,
Human rights lawyer

India has been receiving a large number of refugees from neighbouring countries, such as Sri Lanka, Tibet, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, and Afghanistan. Among them, Sri Lankan Tamil refugees have remained a concern because their continuous flight into India since 1983 has been significantly higher than from other countries. As per the data provided by the state department of rehabilitation, in 1983 as many as 30,693 Sri Lankan refugees arrived in Tamil Nadu, in 1990 the number was highest at 1,18,948. The data shows that in 2012 only nine refugees came to India while in 2013 and 2014 none came in from Sri Lanka.

Upon their arrival in the state, they were mostly settled in the various refugee camps. Subsequently, some of them self-settled among the local population in Tamil Nadu and neighbouring states of Karnataka, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. During the initial days of strife in Sri Lanka, Tamil-origin refugees were encouraged to enter and stay in India. But the assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991 brought a change in the attitude. Not only Gandhi, the Sri Lankan assassins had also blown away the sympathy for their fellow countrymen, and women, in India, especially so in Tamil Nadu. Since then refugees are often treated with some degree of suspicion and kept in camps under round-the-clock police surveillance.

State empathy continues to define the existence and living conditions in the 112 camps housing nearly 65,000 inmates all over the state. Aided by international crime syndicates, traffickers frequently target these refugees, giving them false hope, promising them safe passage across Indian Ocean and guaranteeing them Australian citizenship once they reach there.

People are also hoodwinked by agents citing cases of refugees who fled to Australia and are now living there. Till 2010-11, the Australian policy was lax towards illegal immigrants.

This problem started in 2009 during the final phase of Sri Lanka war, aggravated in 2010-11 and continues to thrive under police patronage, as confirmed by a senior state police officer who did not wish to be identified.

Till April 2013, it is estimated that 1,006 refugees from various camps have been smuggled out of India. While some would have reached as far as Australia, there have been instances of boats sinking mid-way and drowning all their passengers. The small fishing boats are not meant for very long journeys on open seas. Also, they are often overloaded with fleeing passengers.

The asylum seekers pay lakhs of rupees to the agents, who lure them with assurances of getting them asylum and dole dollars once in Australia. The refugees take loans, borrow from their relatives abroad, and even sell whatever valuables they possess. “Most of them pay the last of their savings to board a fishing boat in the hope of reaching a faraway fairyland,” says SC Chandrahasan, founder of Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation (OfERR). Chandrahasan came to India from Sri Lanka in 1983 and is working for the Sri Lankan refugees since then.

With no sight of the future, refugees take hard decisions, such as boarding boats to Australia... Thus it becomes important to look at the treatment given to refugees.

Gladston Xavier
Professor, Loyola College, Chennai

For seven months there were no reports of refugees attempting to leave Indian coast illegally. Before June, the last attempt to flee was on October 11, 2013. “The well-organised criminals were inactive, as there were no takers but again the network seems to be getting strengthened,” says Chandrahasan. “We have intensified the awareness campaign in the camps. We have also put up banners in association with the Australian high commission. One such banner depicting the sea in the background says, ‘We don’t want to commit suicide.’ We ask refugees not to undertake the dangerous journey. So many of our people have already lost their lives in the Sri Lankan struggle, should we also lose lives to the sea?” he adds. The state government agencies, coast guard and the Special Cell CID, more popularly known as the Q branch, of Tamil Nadu police also help us in the effort, says Chandrahasan. 

Many, however, would still flee, irrespective of what Chandrahasan, or anybody else, might say to them.

At the Puzhal camp, a few of the inmates, who had earlier made attempts to escape and were ‘rescued’ by marine patrols, are back in the camp. Australia remains on their minds though. “Our friends and relatives have fled and are living in Australia in comfort and luxury. Moreover, they have freedom of life. We cannot hope to go back to Sri Lanka unless we see our future secured there,” says a 28-year-old who declines to be identified for fear of persecution. 

“We also came to know that entering Australia has become very difficult now. We are citizens of nowhere. I don’t know what will be my son’s future. He will do what I am doing, lifting heavy loads for a subsistence wage,” adds 32-year-old Shakthi (name changed), who came to India with his wife as a refugee in 2008. Despite knowing that there have been instances of boats sinking mid-way and asylum seekers losing their lives, Shakthi tried to escape from the camp to seek asylum. His 30-year-old wife Latha accompanied him in his mission. “I was seven-months pregnant at the time we made an attempt to flee. We got into the boat which was jam-packed. But we were picked up by police and brought back,” says a nonchalant Latha.

There is a generation of children born in the camp, but their future remains in dark. A 22-year-old graduate in the camp, Senthil, says, “There is exploitation at jobs. Knowing that I am a refugee, my employer does not give me full wages.” But 15-year-old Jesna and 17-year-old Jeeva are well aware of the political posturing over Sri Lankan Tamil issue as also the scenario in their native country, so they want to study hard and build careers in this country. They dream and hope for better days.


Thirty-one years (as they completed in July this year) has been a long time for these refugees to grieve and continue to live in fear. Added to this is the poor living condition of the camps. They are struggling in order to earn a living and to survive in the camps as refugees. Political leaders pay little attention to the refugees’ dire living conditions. But every time an election approaches, parties crazily compete to portray themselves as the leading champions of the Sri Lankan Tamils, an issue that still has emotional resonance in the state. From chief minister J Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK, to M Karunanidhi’s DMK and state party leaders such as Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) chief V Gopalswamy, also known as Vaiko, capitalise on the issue to gain maximum mileage in elections.

Incidents of ‘people-smuggling’ also raise a question on security in these camps. A senior bureaucrat who does not wish to be identified says, “We cannot stop inmates going out of the camp. Men move out for livelihood. They come to the camp mostly when attendance is marked that is in the first week of the month. Anyway, the wife can always call them to the camp for the roll call.” He adds since there is no political clarity on their future – whether they would be sent back to Sri Lanka or assimilated in the local population – such activities are likely to continue. When Governance Now contacted the Q branch of Tamil Nadu police, they agreed that illegal trafficking is on but refused to provide any further information. 

The problem is compounded by weak coastal security. The domestic concern is that the way people are illegally crossing the Indian coast, they must be entering India too, says professor Gladston Xavier of Loyola College, Chennai, who has worked with Sri Lankan refugees. He further says, “With no sight of the future, refugees take hard decisions, such as boarding boats to Australia. They follow the old trend of boats going from Indonesia to Australia. The previous route was from Sri Lanka all the way to Canada. Some boats even went up to Europe. Thus it becomes important to look at the treatment given to refugees.”

The central government runs some programmes for refugees and the state government shares the cost but that is not enough, he adds.

The present government in Australia, Gladston points out, has very clearly said they would not tolerate such boats anymore. Recently, they launched ‘operation sovereign borders’. Under this, if a boat is seen straying into Australian waters, the boat will be dragged back to where it came from. The entire operation is managed by a three-star general, which makes it pretty serious. When boats went from Indonesia they sent them back. In the last eight months, there have been no boats from Indonesia and for seven months there were no boats from India, too. But again the menace of the well-organised network has struck, he says.

So, what is the solution to the Sri Lankan refugee problem?
India is not a signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugee or its 1967 Protocol. This Act aims to protect social and economic rights assigned to refugees by international laws and agreements. So, India needs to sign the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) convention, says human rights lawyer Sudha Ramalingam, who has worked for years for Sri Lankan refugees in special camps. “Nothing comes of telling how hospitable we are. The government even shows in the budget that several crores of rupees are being spent on refugees from different neighbouring countries. The point is it is not charity that the government is throwing. It should be a right that should be given, but it is possible only if we sign the convention,” she explains. At present, the UNHCR cannot directly do anything. It is still not in a position to take up any concrete issue.

Is anything being done at all to address the situation? Chandrahasan also blames the Sri Lankan government for the plight of its people in India. Immediately after the war a powerful devolution package should have been ushered in and Tamils should have been included in the population, he says. Instead, the process got delayed because of the political scenario. People here are waiting for the day when things in the island nation get better and there is a political solution that gives them the confidence of going back. OfERR, on its part, tells them there will be challenges. “In Sri Lanka, we went through war and sufferings. Here we are living in safety. We tell them now it is our duty to go back, get together with our people and build our country,” says Chandrahasan.

There have been 16 rounds of consultations with camp refugees. The final round will be held this month. “We are also holding consultations with the government bodies concerned, in India and Sri Lanka.

Initially, some refugees went back, but the numbers have since dwindled. So, the return needs to be more structured and planned. 

Refugees’ names have been changed at their request

This story first appeared in Magazine Vol 05 Issue 15(01-15 Sept 2014)



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