The number of anguished Tamils fleeing to India to escape violence in Sri Lanka has crossed the 10,000-mark, and a leading activist says that the refugees will keep coming unless fighting halts in the island.
A total of 477 Tamils landed on Tamil Nadu's coast on Monday and this rose to 491 by Tuesday. Indian authorities have opened about 15 new refugee camps on top of the 100 already existing in the southern state to accommodate the rush.
"The arrivals have greatly increased," said SC Chandrahasan of OFERR, a NGO that has been working among Sri Lankan Tamil refugees for over two decades. "It is a reflection of the situation spinning out of control in the island."
He said the men, women and children who had fled to India since January 12 now stood at 10,745, of which over 5,000 came in August alone.
As fighting escalated this month in both Sri Lanka's north and east, August 25 saw 629 people arrive by fishing vessels - the highest for a single day.
"Large numbers of people are waiting in Mannar to cross over to India," Chandrahasan, whose NGO gives assistance to the streaming refugees, said.
"The feeling among the people is that there is going to be an all-out war in Sri Lanka and that there is no one to protect them. So they are heading to India."
A recent arrival included an injured man who said he was a victim of a bomb explosion in the eastern district of Trincomalee, and a 14-year-old boy who came with a squirrel, much like a girl some time back who brought her pet parrots.
Most refugees say they are fleeing to India to escape the high handedness of Sri Lankan military personnel.
The refugees, who are mostly from poor families and mainly from Trincomalee and Mannar districts, say they left in a hurry after selling off their household goods and even means of living such as boats for almost nothing to pay for their and their families' sea journey. Boatmen charge around Rs 7,000 per head.
"Many from Trincomalee are those who began rebuilding their lives after the tsunami," said Chandrahasan. "They say the natural tsunami was manageable. But they cannot withstand the present violence."
The boats usually leave the Sri Lankan shores when there is minimal naval deployment and when the sea is not very rough. Depending on the routes taken by the vessels, it can take a few hours for the packed boats to reach India.
The refugees land mostly in and around Rameshwaram. They go to the nearest police post, get themselves fingerprinted and are sent to the main refugee camp at Mandabam where they are screened by Indian security agencies.
Subsequently, they are disbursed among the various refugee centres in Tamil Nadu, which is separated from Sri Lanka by a strip of sea and which in the 1980s was home to over 1,80,000 Tamil refugees.
Even before the refugee flow resumed in January this year, the Tamil Nadu camps were home to some 59,000 people besides 35,000-40,000 Sri Lankan Tamils who live on their own in the state.
On its part, the Tamil Nadu government says it is determined to improve the lot of the refugees.
"Something needs to be done to give a reprieve to these people," Chandrahasan emphasised.