Kath Noble

Stuck, for a generation

Posted in The Hindu by kathnoble on July 31, 2011

Sri Lankan refugees have lived in ‘temporary’ camps in Tamil Nadu since the 1980s.

Sri Lankan refugee camp in Tamil Nadu‘There may be no fence, but this is still a restricted area,’ the intelligence officer tells us as we stand talking to a group of refugees near the entrance to a camp somewhere in the Villupuram district. ‘Who are you and why have you come?’ It seems we need permission from the government to visit.

The 467 families who live here are closely watched by the authorities. But it isn’t clear why.

At least 45,000 of the 70,000 Sri Lankans who stay in refugee camps in Tamil Nadu have been in the state for more than 10 if not 20 years. Children have been born, grown up and even graduated from university here. They speak with an Indian accent.

Indians can’t tell them apart from their own people, yet the refugees don’t have the same rights. Sri Lankans living in camps are officially only allowed out between 6am and 6pm, and they have to mark their movements in a register. If they want to stay away longer, they must apply to the district collector. Professor Irudaya Rajan of the Centre for Development Studies in Kerala, who has made a detailed study of life in the camps, says, ‘Exploitation is a major problem, with camp leaders and officials using their positions to extract money or favours in exchange for documentation and approvals.’

It is also degrading. A middle aged man we had met earlier at a camp near Thiruvannamalai, brandishing the register, had told us, ‘See our pathetic situation. After so many years here we are still treated this way. Those who fled to the West are doing well now. They have their citizenship and they can live normally. But we have nothing.’

The situation in the camps is indeed pathetic.

Many people we spoke to praised the last DMK administration for having made some efforts to improve the facilities in the camps, but the fact is that they are still minimal. The government has provided the refugees in Villupuram with ‘houses’ that measure 10 foot by 10 foot – in some cases not even enough space for all the family to lie down at once. There are no windows. And the roof is metal, burning hot to the touch at midday. We don’t stay inside for long.

In Villupuram, there are only 325 ‘houses’. The other 142 families have put up huts using whatever materials they could get their hands on – driftwood, plastic sheeting and a bewildering array of old sacks, plus thatching they have weaved together from the leaves of the coconut palms that fringe the idyllic-looking beach a few hundred metres away.

Retreating into what little shade the wall of the adjoining building offers, our host explains their predicament. ‘Even those of us who have money can’t help ourselves,’ he says. ‘Here we are fortunate that the village people let us join them for fishing. Many of us were fishermen there in Sri Lanka. We can earn 500 or 600 rupees a day. But we can’t buy land. We are stuck here. We can’t even legally get sand to make improvements to our homes. For that you need a permit – that means documents! We can’t buy vehicles. We can’t get loans for our children’s schooling. We can’t do anything other than eat and sleep.’

In fact, he has done a lot. His three daughters are highly educated – the first has an MPhil in Tamil, the second an MCom, and the third is currently studying for her MS in nursing.

The problem is that they can’t get jobs that match their qualifications.

A Sri Lankan attached to a local NGO says that even when refugees can get permission to move out of the camps for work, people take advantage of their status. ‘We are not entitled to government jobs. Private companies hire us, but they pay much less when they find out we are Sri Lankans,’ she explains. ‘Many graduates find it more profitable to work as labourers.’

Men work in construction or as painters of high-rise buildings. Women break stones in quarries.

These are difficult and sometimes dangerous jobs, but they are lucky to have them. There are 112 camps in Tamil Nadu, spread more or less evenly across the state. Those near urban centres are economically better off. But refugees who find themselves in remote areas often struggle to make ends meet.

The cash dole the government offers – Rs. 400 per month for a head of family, Rs. 288 for other adults, Rs. 180 for the first child and Rs. 90 for other children – doesn’t go far.

‘We found a way to shift up here from Madurai,’ we would later be told at a camp in the Thiruvallur district just 50km from Chennai. ‘There are more opportunities for us here, and the facilities are much better.’

In some places, refugees have been living in abandoned warehouses for as long as 15 years.

‘It is a matter of luck,’ says an employee of an international NGO who does not want to be named for fear that the government will curtail their access to the camps. ‘Some organisations have been allocated land and they have built fairly decent houses. Elsewhere, the refugees are living in grain stores put up in the British period. They hang sarees to give the women some kind of privacy. But there are no toilets. Sometimes, the camps don’t even have water.’

Controls on the refugees also vary from place to place. Some of the camps are guarded 24 hours a day by the police.

People’s Union for Civil Liberties General Secretary Sa Balamurugan explains, ‘The problem is that we have no refugee law in India. That means everything is ad hoc. Sri Lankan refugees here in the Erode district are in a very sorry state. But just a few kilometres away there is a settlement of Tibetan refugees who live quite happily. They aren’t treated equally.’

We didn’t get the chance to find out. The government refused our request to enter the camps.

After three weeks of patient telephone calls, a formal letter and two visits to her office, Joint Secretary of the Public Department Mythili K Rajendran IAS informed us that only United Nations representatives are permitted to visit the refugees.

In fact, this is not the case.

According to a UNHCR spokesperson, ‘We don’t have access to the camps. When called to interview the refugees, our staff go to the office of the district collector. They have our address and telephone number if they need our help.’

India is one of a handful of countries that have not signed the United Nations convention on refugees. Following criticism of its attempts to send people back to Sri Lanka when the LTTE assassinated Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, the government has allowed UNHCR to monitor returns. But that is the extent of its involvement.

As yet, very few people have returned – only around 2,000 in the two years since the war ended. And opinions differ on how many of the refugees will ever be ready to leave.

What is clear is that they don’t trust the Sri Lankan government and they have no confidence in the newly established peace in Sri Lanka. Why should they? Some of them have gone back several times already, only to have to embark once again on the hazardous journey across the Palk Strait when fighting restarted. And on each occasion, they have left behind everything they owned. Living in even the most pathetic situation in Tamil Nadu is better than risking having to start from scratch again. They are waiting for Mahinda Rajapaksa to come up with a permanent settlement for Tamils in Sri Lanka. And they want it to be underwritten by India.

The problem is that neither government looks as though it is in any kind of hurry. Perhaps Tamils will never get what they would consider a fair deal.

In such an eventuality, the refugees may just be forgotten.

It would be ironic, given the energy politicians in Tamil Nadu put into discussing what is happening in Sri Lanka. It is already disturbing how few of them manage to translate this interest into practical help for Sri Lankan people living in their own constituencies. Ravikumar, an MLA in the previous Tamil Nadu assembly who was part of a team sent to inspect the camps in 2006, explains, ‘Most of the refugees here come from the lowest sections of Sri Lankan society. That plays a role – caste is important in Tamil Nadu. But there is also a feeling that they ran away from the struggle.’ Apparently even tiny babies should have stayed to fight for Eelam.

Given the length of time most of the refugees have spent in India, citizenship should be an option. But Delhi is not keen to set a precedent and even Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalitha opposed the idea when it was suggested by her predecessor Karunanidhi.

Should twenty-something year olds who have never set foot in Sri Lanka have to ‘return’? What about their parents, whose last memories are of death and destruction – neighbours lynched by the Army, a shop burnt or a mentally-handicapped son tortured?

The refugees themselves are divided on the issue.

Even if they choose to go, they will need help. Many of the refugees lack key documents – birth certificates, passports and so on. The Sri Lankan consulate in Chennai has started a mobile service, but progress is very slow. They must step up the pace. They must also look into what assistance they can provide for refugees who own land in Sri Lanka – there will be many disputes, and the situation will get even more complicated as the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced are resettled. Land must be set aside for those who do not already have it. There is more than enough space, but like anywhere, there will be pressure to reserve it for rich companies, not poor farmers – as most of the refugees were.

For the moment, getting to the West is a major preoccupation. In Thiruvallur, people are moving out almost every week.

An old lady tells us that the refugees who were arrested recently while trying to leave the country illegally are from this camp. ‘It is big business,’ she says with a sigh. ‘They don’t have to pay much to get into the boats – the main payment is made once they reach the other end. Many people can manage it. They just have to be ready to take the risk.’ They usually go to what she describes as ‘bad’ countries like Australia, where they face racism. ‘Such destinations are cheap. The agents then use the money they collect from these people to get to the UK or Canada.’

If they are caught, they are simply brought back to the camps. But the agents are sent to ‘special’ camps – prisons in which the government holds Sri Lankans it considers to be a security risk.

There are 44 such detainees in two locations near Chennai. Most have not been charged with a crime, but are just suspected of being likely to commit one. There is no way for them to prove otherwise – using the Foreigners Act, the authorities can detain any non-citizen without trial for as long as they like. It is a law that dates from the British period.

Such dependence on the fairness or good nature of the state is at the heart of the difficulties the refugees face.

‘We don’t know what the future will bring,’ we are told as darkness falls and we prepare to leave the Thiruvallur camp. ‘Jayalalitha talks nicely now, but she did nothing for us when she was last in power. We don’t know what she will do.’

It is not how most of us would like to live for very long, never mind for a whole generation.

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