For Thangamma*, returning to Sri Lanka’s once-embattled northern town of Jaffna is nothing short of a pilgrimage. “I waited for two decades to leave India,” she said.
The 65-year-old is one of a small number of Sri Lankan Tamils who have returned home after spending years as refugees in one of 100 camps in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
More than 100,000 Tamil civilians fled to the sub-continent to escape fighting between government forces and the now defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who had been fighting for an independent Tamil homeland since 1983.
“We had no choice but to go. We were grateful for the safety those camps offered,” recalled Parthasingham*, a returnee from Chavakachcheri, another northern town devastated by the war.
While most Sri Lankan refugees in India say conditions in the country are not yet right for their return, since the conflict was declared over on 18 May 2009, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has assisted more than 4,500 refugees to voluntarily return to their homeland.
Those who return cite family unification, conditions inside the camps, or concerns over property left behind, as driving their decision.
Most have gone to the eastern district of Trincomalee, followed by Mannar, Vavuniya and Jaffna in the north.
Under the programme, the agency provides each returnee with a modest transport grant of about US$30 per person, in addition to a reintegration grant of between $65 and $88 (per child and adult). Five UNHCR offices in the north and east stock kits of basic household supplies for the returnees.
In addition, the agency carries out regular monitoring to ensure returnees receive mine-risk education, are included on the food ration lists and are considered for the many government, UN and other projects in place to re-establish the lives of Sri Lankans in the north and east of the country.
To date, most returnees have arrived by plane; however, in October, UNHCR began repatriating refugees by commercial ferry between the Indian port city of Tuticorin and the Sri Lankan capital Colombo. The service was temporarily suspended at the end of November.
“The pace of the return is slower than UNHCR had foreseen, but with the resumption of the ferry service, an increased number of refugees in India had expressed their interest to return during the last quarter of 2011,” Michael Zwack, UNHCR country representative in Colombo, told IRIN.
But for those who return, the arrival can prove bittersweet.
“My house is gone. We have to start from scratch,” Saruja Chinnatamby, 44, from a camp in the Tamil Nadu town of Rameshwaram, said. “But at least we are back in our own homes.”
For others – many of whom were barely children when they fled or were born in camps in India – returning to a country they barely know is particularly challenging, making their reintegration needs all the more important.
“It was a hard life in India, but now I miss it,” Perumal*, 24, said outside his home in northern Sri Lanka. He worries about his family’s future and problems of shelter, water and sanitation, and his children’s education, but will remain in Sri Lanka to be with his extended family.
“We have nothing to build on except our hopes and memories,” the father-of-two said.
Over the past year, much of the government’s focus has been on the more than 280,000 people displaced in the final days of the conflict.
“The priority is the internally displaced during the final phase of the war,” a government official, who asked not to be named, conceded.
But according to UNHCR, the challenges of Sri Lanka’s IDPs and the refugees from abroad are largely comparable.
“In general, the reintegration needs for refugees and IDPs returning to the former conflict areas are similar,” UNHCR’s Zwack stressed, adding that both groups needed help in rebuilding their lives in terms of basic assistance such as shelter, livelihoods, education and documentation.
According to UNHCR, there are some 140,000 Sri Lankan refugees in 65 countries throughout the world today. Most, about 70,000 people, live in 112 refugee camps in Tamil Nadu, with another 30,000 living outside the camps. The remainder are in Europe, Canada, Australia and the United States.
There have been four major outflows of Sri Lankan refugees to India and other countries; the first in 1983, then between 1989 and 1992. The third outflow was between 1995 and 1999 and the last between 2006 and 2009.
*Not their real names