Awaiting Centre’s orders, TN gives humanitarian aid to 16 who fled Lanka

Mar 26, 2022 12:40 AM IST

The state government has decided to take a humanitarian approach while they await orders from the union government about those who fled the island.

Chennai: First they fled the war. Now they’re fleeing one of the worst economic crises since Sri Lanka became independent in 1948. But even those who stayed back during the bloody civil war that spanned decades are now desperate to leave the island due to the misery. “Some of my relatives who didn’t even leave during the war are saying that they had the guts to face the war but how do they live in starvation? They may end up looking at ways to leave and they believe India will safeguard them,” said a Sri Lankan refugee living on the outskirts of Chennai who did not wish to be identified. “The war affected only the Tamils but the current crisis has affected the Sinhalese too.”

Sri Lankans wait to buy cooking gas at a vendor in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Friday. (AP)
Sri Lankans wait to buy cooking gas at a vendor in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Friday. (AP)

The state government has decided to take a humanitarian approach while they await orders from the union government about those who fled the island. On 22 March, 16 Sri Lankan nationals, including children, from Jaffna and other northern regions of the island (where a majority of Tamils reside) arrived in two batches in Tamil Nadu via boats. The Indian Coast Guard apprehended the first six Lankans on Tuesday morning from near Rameshwaram in Ramanathapuram district. Later on Tuesday night, another 10 Lankan Tamils also reached the shores.

On Wednesday, the families were booked under the Passports Act, 1967 and the Foreigners Act, 1946 for illegal entry into India. A local court in Rameshwaram ordered their detention. “They have entered illegally due to economic misery and on a humanitarian basis we are offering them accommodation and food,” said K S Mastan, minister for minorities and non-resident Tamils’ welfare. All 16 (seven children, six women and three men) have been kept at the Mandapam special camp in Rameshwaram. Special camps for refugees in the state denote detaining foreigners who have committed crimes. “They are under police protection,” the minister said. “We can take the next steps only depending upon what the union government decides.” A day ago, chief minister M K Stalin told the state assembly that they are in contact with officials from the union government over the issue.

The commissioner of rehabilitation and welfare of non-resident Tamils, Jacintha Lazarus, met the families at the Mandapam camp on Wednesday to enquire and understand their ground reality. “At least four of them were refugees in the camps here and went back to Sri Lanka. Even those who have fled and come to India now have relatives in the camps, so it’s through these links they decided to make this journey,” said Lazarus. “We have received intel information that more families are planning to come but we cannot jump the gun on that. This could be a one-off situation too.”

Meanwhile, surveillance has been increased along Indian waters. Another senior government official who did not want to be identified said that Tamil Nadu does not want to encourage this which would lead to an exodus. There are presently 58,822 Sri Lankan refugees in 822 camps in 29 districts, while 34,087 refugees live outside the camps. The fleeing of these Tamils on Tuesday was a horrific reminder of the exodus of Lankan Tamils to Tamil Nadu during the civil war in the 1980s until it ended in 2009. Some of the refugees have since gone back to Sri Lanka while some chose to stay back. “At that time they were provided refugee status and they are being taken care of till now. But this is a problem that the Sri Lankan government has to solve,” the senior official said.

Tamil Nadu officials have had discussions with the United Nations Human Rights Council in the state on the issue. “The advice is for the state government to either take a humanitarian approach or provide temporary assistance such as visas because we do not have a refugee policy,” another official privy to the developments said. “Technically, there is no grounds to grant them refugee status under international refugee law because these people aren’t facing prosecution back in Sri Lanka.”

Sri Lanka is currently facing a huge debt crisis seeking the help of international institutions and these families were trying to escape unemployment and skyrocketing prices of commodities. “Our struggle is unimaginable. We could have either lost our lives at sea and that was still okay or we could be in India. That’s why we decided to leave,” one of the Lankan Tamil women Sivasankari told reporters earlier on Tuesday.

The refugee living outside Chennai and quoted above landed in the shores of Rameshwaram like these families but way back in the 1990s. In 2004, he left a camp and currently lives outside which means he will have to regularly report at the local police station due to his refugee status though he lives with his wife and two children here. “I don’t know how much longer my relatives back in Ilangai (meaning Sri Lanka in Tamil) can go on like this,” he says. “Soon they have to start having just one meal a day. The price of a kg of tomatoes is 700 as of today. They have been standing in 5km lines for petrol and kerosene. Even if they have money, they can’t do anything. They have no more cooking gas left. They have gone back to old ways of using firewood.”

Refugees like him hope for the state government to keep its promise of giving them citizenship and extend such help to their kin. Last August 27, Stalin in the assembly said that his government will soon set up a high-level committee under the chairmanship of Masthan for granting dual citizenship to Sri Lankan Tamils as well as uplift their living conditions. Stalin also made a slew of announcements for the community who are not covered under the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019. The controversial CAA allows India citizenship for persecuted immigrants except Muslims from three neighbouring countries -- Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh -- but leaves out Sri Lanka. Though the DMK has been against the CAA, it is their election promise to help ensure citizenship for Sri Lankan Tamils.

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    Divya Chandrababu is an award-winning political and human rights journalist based in Chennai, India. Divya is presently Assistant Editor of the Hindustan Times where she covers Tamil Nadu & Puducherry. She started her career as a broadcast journalist at NDTV-Hindu where she anchored and wrote prime time news bulletins. Later, she covered politics, development, mental health, child and disability rights for The Times of India. Divya has been a journalism fellow for several programs including the Asia Journalism Fellowship at Singapore and the KAS Media Asia- The Caravan for narrative journalism. Divya has a master's in politics and international studies from the University of Warwick, UK. As an independent journalist Divya has written for Indian and foreign publications on domestic and international affairs.

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