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Plight of Lankan refugees evokes worry

india Updated: Jul 25, 2006 12:23 IST
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Life is a long vacation for seven-year-old Kanniamma, who has not been to a school after fleeing her home in Sri Lanka and arriving in India in February.

Kanniamma's parents at the refugee camp here simply cannot afford to send her to a school.

Over 5,700 Sri Lankans have poured into Tamil Nadu to escape separatist violence in their country even as about 58,000 refugees have been living in the existing 103 camps across the state since the 1980s.

NGOs say the conditions in these camps are "appalling" and fear that Kanniamma's story is a common one for most families at the refugee camps.

Seven organisations, under the umbrella of the Federation for Peoples' Rights (FPR), have urged the government to come out with a white paper on the condition of the refugee camps, especially the Mandapam camp, where this year's influx of refugees have been sent, and the quarantine camps.

The FPR, which sent a 19-member team to study the situation in these camps, has also recommended setting up a commission, headed by a sitting high court judge, to suggest ways to improve the conditions of these camps.

The Academy for Disaster Management Education, Planning and Training (ADEPT), a federation member, quotes from a study conducted at the Mandapam camp: "Malnutrition is visible among both the fresh refugee children as well as the old ones.

"The refugees suffer from the psychological effects of conflict, sudden migration, their refugee status, poverty, dependency on dole and doubts about their future."

The 287-acre camp at Mandapam on the Rameswaram-Madurai national highway has high walls with electric barbed wire fencing on the roadside. On the other side is the wide blue sea, patrolled by forces.

Of the 1,955 shelters at the camp, as many as 980 have no electricity while the others are without fans, with power supply available only from 6 pm to 6 am, notes the study.

Besides, most of the 830 toilets are blocked and the makeshift toilets have no roofs or seats. Similarly, the bathrooms, with open drains, have no taps. The refugees collect water from the four wells outside.

Even the streets are not lit at night and the 20-bedded hospital, located within the camp, runs without power, it adds.

The study points out that the refugees are subjected to apathetic conditions right from the day they enter the country.

Local fishermen spot the refugees who are off-loaded from ferries into knee-deep waters after crossing the Palk Strait, a bay that separates the two countries.

Following the choppy crossing, "these refugees are under great stress and tension and look for medicines, which are not available," the study points out.

The Indian Navy and Coast Guard at Harichal point at the south end of the Dhanushkodi sand bar pick them up and hand them over to police, who bring them to the C-3 police station in mainland Dhanushkodi, 10 km away, where NGOs supply them bun and tea, it says.

The police then take their fingerprints and photographs and list their belongings as they sit out the whole day in the station house compound, which has only one toilet - for the staff.

They are fed in the open and at the end of the day they are taken to the Mandapam camp.

Intelligence agencies and other government bodies check them before issuing identity cards, ration cards, refugee data dossiers, bedding and utensils.

The condition of refugees is equally grim in other camps, suggests the study.

In Karur, 40 refugee families live in a rice storehouse while the Bhavanisagar camp has had no electricity for the last 16 years.

Each refugee gets five litres of kerosene a month while an adult gets 500 gm of uncooked rice per day and a child 400 gm. In addition, an adult refugee is expected to live on a stipend of Rs 144 and a child Rs 45 a month.

According to this year's state budget presented on Saturday, the state government will contribute Rs 200 towards the stipend for the head of a refugee family in addition to the same amount being given by the central government.

If the refugees want to seek employment outside the camps, they have to take official permission, says the study.

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