Sri Lanka And Refugees: Plea For A Humane Approach – OpEd


By Prof. V. Suryanarayan

Seven years have passed since the Tigers were decimated. The hope that many entertained that the Sri Lankan refugees will return to their homeland has not materialized.

The organizations involved in the rehabilitation process – Government of Tamil Nadu, Sri Lankan Deputy High Commission in Chennai and UNHCR in Chennai – have simplified the procedures, but the return of the refugees moves at a snail’s pace. According to UNHCR sources only 7,353 refugees have so far gone back to Sri Lanka. There are still 64,800 refugees staying in 106 camps scattered throughout Tamil Nadu. In addition, there are approximately 35,000 to 40,000 non-camp refugees.

The repatriation of refugees is beset with several imponderables. One factor favourable to the refugees must be highlighted. No political group is demanding their return and, therefore, it has not got embroiled in the competitive politics of the State. It may be recalled that soon after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, the Government of Tamil Nadu exerted pressure on the refugees to return to the island; the human rights organizations naturally sought judicial remedies complaining that India was violating non-refoulement, the basic principle of international humanitarian law. In order to counter their argument New Delhi permitted the UNHCR to open an office in Chennai to verify the voluntariness of repatriation.

The author’s interaction with NGOs working among the refugees highlights the point that most of the refugees who have returned to the island own cultivable land. For them there is no problem of settling down in their village. The rest are mainly landless labourers and there is no guarantee that they will get a permanent job once they return. Few others have availed themselves of the educational facilities in Tamil Nadu and, therefore, would like to take up jobs commensurate to their qualifications. What should be of concern to the two governments are the media reports that some refugees have fallen prey to human traffickers, who portray Australia as an El Dorado. On payment of huge sums of money these gullible refugees are transported in rickety boats, many perish on the way and the few who reach the shores of Australia face an uncertain future In addition, there are 29,500 Malaiha (hill country) Tamil refugees. The overwhelming majority among them are keen to acquire Indian citizenship.

Tolerance and good will has made India a haven for refugees from very early times. Since the dawn of independence India has successfully tackled the problems relating to the flow of refugees –from Pakistan, Tibet, East Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Approximately 27 million refugees have come to India, which is more than the population of Sri Lanka and Singapore put together. The treatment of refugees has received international acclaim. The US Committee for Refugees, few years ago, stated that “India has accorded a welcome to the Tamil asylum seekers that are as generous as any refugee groups in Asia”.

It is interesting to note that many South Asian leaders hail from refugee background. M.A. Jinnah, Z.A. Bhutto, Pervez Musharraf, I.K. Gujral, L.K. Advani and Man Mohan Singh were one time refugees. Even then, none of the South Asian countries are signatories to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees nor have they ratified the 1967 Protocol. South Asian countries have also not enacted separate refugee legislation. As a result, the problems relating to the refugees are dealt with on an ad hoc basis. For example, Sri Lankan Tamil refugees are permitted to work outside the camps, whereas the Chakma refugees were denied that right. It is high time Government of India enacts a national refugee law, which combines the best humanitarian aspects, while, at the same time, protecting the security interests of the State. The security interests are as important as humanitarian concerns. It may be recalled that among the accused in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case six of them were registered as refugees.

The basic principle underlying India’s refugee policy is to view the problem strictly in a bilateral perspective. The refugees should return to their homeland once the situation improves there. Dealing specifically with the Tibetan refugees, Prime Minister Nehru declared in the Lok Sabha that India’s policy on the subject was governed by three factors: 1) India’s desire to maintain friendly relations with the Peoples Republic of China; 2) Protection of the security and territorial integrity of India; and 3) India’s deep sympathy for the people of Tibet.

The BJP led government has introduced a welcome change in this policy. According to media reports, New Delhi has decided to confer Indian citizenship on Bangladeshi Hindus who, unable to bear discrimination, have taken shelter in India. It is reliably learnt that Hindus who have come from Pakistan and Sikhs who have come from Afghanistan have also been conferred Indian citizenship. The decision has been hailed by all sections of Indian society who consider this timely gesture as an illustration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi stretching his hand of friendship to people of Indian origin, who are in dire need of Indian support.

There is one section of the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees who deserve New Delhi’s sympathy and understanding. They are 29,500 Maliaha (hill country) Tamil refugees, who are listed in the Sri Lankan census as Indian Tamils. Unlike Sri Lankan Tamils, who do not consider themselves as of Indian origin, the Malaiha Tamils are proud of their Indian ancestry. The Sri Lankan Tamils do not participate in the annual Pravasi Bharatiya Divas Conference, whereas the Malaiha Tamils do. The Malaiha Tamils never subscribed to the demand for a separate state of Tamil Eelam, but, even then, they were subjected to savage and vicious attacks by lumpen sections of Sinhalese population in 1977, 1981 and 1983. The Malaiha Tamils who migrated to the north after the 1977 riots were the first to be caught in the senseless conflict between the Sinhalese Lions and the Tamil Tigers. Along with Sri Lankan Tamils they came to India in the first wave of refugees. Others from the southern part of the island soon followed. They sold all their belongings, came to India with the hope that Mother India will not force them to return.

The Malaiha Tamil refugees have successfully assimilated with local population. Their children have inter-married with local people. The author had the opportunity to inter-act with the Malaiha Tamil refugees in the Kottapattu camp in Tiruchi. They repeatedly declared that they have no stakes in Sri Lanka and they do not want to go back. When the refugee camps were closed down following the signing of India-Sri Lanka Accord, these people refused to move out and the Kottapattu camp, like Mandapam camp, continued to function. Their children have availed of the educational facilities available in the State. Many have become graduates, but they are unable to get jobs commensurate to their qualifications, because they are not Indian citizens. These refugees are unanimous, come what may, they will not return to Sri Lanka.

According to citizenship provisions of the Indian Constitution, these people of Indian origin are entitled for Indian citizenship. What stands in their way is the policy decision of the Government of India that Sri Lankan refugees are not entitled for Indian citizenship. In a letter to the Special Commissioner of Rehabilitation dated November 21, 2007 Thiru D. Jothi Jagarajan, Secretary to the Government of Tamil Nadu, wrote: “I am to state that in view of the categorical instructions issued by the Government of India, not to entertain the applications of Sri Lankan refugees for the grant of Indian citizenship, it is considered that it may not be appropriate to forward the cases of the petitioners to the Government of India”.

In the light of the recent decision of the Government of India to confer citizenship on those refugees from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, who want to acquire Indian citizenship, the issue of citizenship to Malaiha Tamil refugees must be reconsidered. A broad hint of revised thinking on the subject was provided by Shri MK Narayanan, former National Security Advisor, while addressing a public meeting organized by the Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy few weeks ago. Narayanan stated that most of the refugees would go back to Sri Lanka provided they have security, but at the same time, it would be possible to think of across the border citizenship to those who want it. Earlier it is done the better.

*Dr. V. Suryanarayan is former Director and founding Director, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras, Chennai. His e mail id: [email protected]


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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