Sri Lankan refugees hope for citizenship after Tamil Nadu CM Stalin’s support
A 55-year-old Sri Lankan refugee in Chennai, who was a member of the militant Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO), was among the many who came to Tamil Nadu for protection after the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) withdrew its troops from Sri Lanka between late 1980s and 1990. He built a life in the state, marrying another refugee from his camp and raising two sons in their mid-20s.
“My children are of Indian origin being born in Tamil Nadu, they have no relationship with Sri Lanka and yet they are called refugees,” says the man, who doesn’t wish to be identified. His adult sons are neither Indian citizens nor Sri Lankan citizens or of any other country but this nation-state (India) is the only one they know of. “Since we live outside of the camp, my sons and I have to register at the local police station. It’s a scar to live like this.”
TELO was a separatist militant organisation like the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that fought for an independent Tamil statehood in Sri Lanka but much of their cadre was wiped out by the latter. TELO organised itself as a political party and has two members in the Sri Lankan parliament. Since the 55-year-old fled alone at that time, much of his family still lives in the island nation.
But there is new hope among Sri Lankan Tamil refugees like him in the state that they will be able to attain Indian citizenship in the light of chief minister MK Stalin’s 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. On August 27, MK Stalin in the assembly said that his government will soon set up a high-level committee under the chairmanship of minorities and non-resident Tamils’ welfare minister K S Masthan for granting dual citizenship to Sri Lankan Tamils as well as uplifting their living conditions.
He announced a ₹317-crore package for the welfare of refugees and ₹231.54 crore for reconstructing more than 7,000 new houses in refugee camps, providing free gas stoves and cylinders. He increased subsidies and scholarships and introduced training to make them employable. A day later, he renamed them as rehabilitation camps. “They are not orphans to be called refugees. We Tamils are with them and in that spirit, the government has renamed the refugee camps as rehabilitation camps for Sri Lankan Tamils,” Stalin said in the assembly on August 28.
“This brought a lot of joy. We have been here for three decades so why still look at us as refugees?” said a refugee in a camp in Gummidipoondi. They distributed sweets and posters of Stalin came up welcoming the funds allocated for infrastructure development. There are presently 58,822 refugees in 822 camps in 29 districts, while 34,087 refugees live outside the camps.
Activists say that this is the first time such a large-scale allocation has been made for Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in the state. “These are homes that were built at least three decades ago,” said a refugee now working in an NGO for the rehabilitation of people like him. He adds that if there were about 50 people at that time, their families have grown and now 100 people live in the same 10x10 square feet space. “But the new announcements aren’t just about infrastructure, it also provides for comprehensive growth for education and employment,” he said.
However, a few leaders from refugee groups who are in the forefront of rallying for citizenship have a different worry. “By providing us with better housing facilities, it raises doubts if our fighting for citizenship will ever happen,” wonders a refugee living in a camp in Sivaganga district who came to the state with his family in the 1980s.
In the past few years, Sri Lankan Tamils who lived in refugee camps in Tamil Nadu and returned to their homes have warned others not to return because they haven’t been able to rebuild their lives on the island. The Rajapaksas who were in power during the end of the war in Sri Lanka in 2009 and the return of their dynastic rule to the island have added to the factor for some to return to their homeland judging it would be safer in the camps. “Some of them have come back and they have been allowed to live in the camps but they cannot avail of any of the state government’s benefits,” said the activist quoted above. Some of the camps are also of Indian Tamil origin who were sent to work in the tea plantations in Sri Lanka during the British colonial rule.
Experts say Sri Lankan Tamil refugees are treated like illegal immigrants. “There is no paradigm of human rights. Legally there is no status for refugees in India and the CAA exploits the situation for geopolitical interests. So the Sri Lankan refugees are solely taken care of by the state government in Tamil Nadu and they are treated like people who are out on bail,” says Thiyagu (who goes only by a first name), general secretary, Tamil National Liberation Movement. He says while the new announcements would help the community it isn’t enough.
“We have to move beyond mere concession and look at granting them political and civil rights. About 2 lakh Sri Lankan Tamil refugees live in Canada and so many of them are now politicians. Their refugee passports in Europe are in effect as good as a citizen’s passport. But for Lankan Tamils here, they can’t even get into medical courses, they can study law but not practice in Indian courts, they cannot avail government jobs. These issues haven’t been addressed by the state.”
Political analysts say that Stalin is addressing the issue of Sri Lankan Tamils given the fact that the Naam Tamilar Katchi (NTK) founded by Tamil nationalist S Seeman soon after the war with LTTE chief V Prabhakaran as their idol has garnered 6.7% votes in the last assembly elections. NTK is now the third largest party in Tamil Nadu which is a huge leap from the 1% vote share it received in the 2016 assembly elections. NTK and Vaiko’s Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) have grown solely maintaining the Sri Lankan Tamils issue as their core ideology. “Based on only the Eelam cause, NTK has scored so much so Stalin is also focussing on it,” says political commentator Raveendran Duraisamy. “Regarding dual citizenship, it is in the hands of the NDA government, but they will not look into it now.”