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Tamil Blogosphere: Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in India

Back in Nov 2006, Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie was in India and had showered praises on India for giving shelter to displaced people from a number of countries. She also said that India's action of providing shelter to refugees from various countries, though it had needy people of its own was commendable.

At that time Badri Seshadri, Chennai, India wrote a post about the plight of refugees and in particular about the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees. Badri says,

இந்தியா தன்னாட்டு மக்கள் நலனுக்கே நிறைய செய்யவேண்டிய நிலையிலும்கூட, வெளிநாட்டு அகதிகளை அரவணைத்து அவர்களுக்கு வேண்டிய அளவு செய்துள்ளதாக ஜோலீ கூறியுள்ளார்…

Refugees coming to India could be classified into four major groups. First Tibetians escaping from the Chinese. India still supports these few tens of thousands. Second group came from Burma/Myanmar when military rule was imposed there. Their number would be around 50 thousand. Third group came from Bangladesh in 1970 in a few hundred thousands. India faced a lot of problems at that time. Fourth major group of refugees came from Sri Lanka.

Even though, India has helped these refugees in the beginning, the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in Tamil Nadu living under harrowing circumstances. They are being shut down in separate camps. Tamil Nadu state government's decision has been to somehow send these refugees back where they came from, against their will.

Badri continues that India did not sign the UNHCR convention treaty in 1951. And hasn't signed till now. Burmese, Afghan, Bangladeshi and Tibetian refugees are not happy in India. But, the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees are worse off than the others. To people who risk life crossing the Palk Strait, all India gives them is quite akin to a prison sentence.

Badri has a set of guidelines.

1. அவர்கள் இந்தியா வந்த உடனேயே, அரசியல் காரணங்களுக்கான அகதி என்பதை உறுதி செய்துகொண்டு (பர்மா, இலங்கை அகதிகள் இன்றைய நிலையில் அரசியல் அகதிகள்தாம்!) அவர்கள் கண்ணியத்துடன் உயிர்வாழ சுகாதாரமான, வசதியான தாற்காலிக இடம் கொடுக்கப்பட வேண்டும்…

1. Refugees, as soon as they land should be confirmed as political refugees. Decent temporary accommodation should be provided for them along with monetary help for at least six months. Then, proper help should be given to the refugees to live life on their own.

2. Political refugees admitted to India should be given some sort of diplomatic papers and should be given permission to live and work anywhere in India.

3. Where-ever the refugees elect to stay, ration cards should be given to them to procure groceries at a fair-price.

4. The children of refugees should be allowed to study in India.

5. Government hospitals should treat refugees like any other Indian, without demanding any payments.

6. Refugees should be allowed to buy any real-estate. And when they sell the property, they should be allowed to convert the money to other foreign currency.

7. Refugees should be allowed to travel to other countries.

8. Most importantly, refugees should not be labeled as ‘usual suspects’ and put in prison and investigated. Such heinous activities should be prohibited.

9. India should sign the 1951 UNHCR convention treaty.

India could then invite Angelina Jolie and celebrate says Badri Seshadri from Chennai, India.

In December 2006, Thiru from Belgium, Varavanaiyan Senthil from Dindugal and Azhiyuran from Thirunelveli visited a Sri Lankan Tamil refugee camp in Thalaiyuthu, Thirunelveli, India.

Here are some excerpts from Thiru's post.

thalaiyuthu_camp.jpg

605 people from 184 families are living in Thalaiyuthu camp. Mud walled huts with coconut leaves for their roofs accommodate these people. During the rainy season, the rainwater would stagnate inside the huts. There are a few make-shift stores inside the camp. A Hindu temple. One of the bore-wells was not functioning leading to drinking water shortages. There are only 3 toilets in a camp with houses around 300 women along with men and children. There are inadequate health facilities. People from the camp go outside and earn a pittance as manual laborers and they don't get paid enough.

Most of families are living in an abandoned building with crumbling walls and roof. Each family has been alloted a 5×5 feet space. Four feet tall mud walls have been erected. A family cooks, eats, relaxes and sleeps in the space given.

Thalaiyuthu Panchayat, district administration, state government and Indian government have not taken care of basic amenities in this refugee camp. We saw pigs and dogs being given better shelter near this camp. At the same time, why hasn't our government provided even the basic help these refugees need. The refugees, who seek shelter fearing the war in their native land are treated quite abominably here. Not only does the government not help, they also prevent other organizations from providing help.

thalaiyuthu_camp2.jpg

Thiru reiterates that it's our duty to make sure at least the basic help should be given these hapless refugees, especially the children.

Thiru goes on to say that there are no information about what is happening to the money set aside by the Indian government, to be spent on refugees. There is no information about the rights of refugees. Thiru says that plans are afoot to collect information regarding what had taken place in the last five years. And that they are planning on the next level of action. He says that he and his friends left the Thalaiyuthu refugee camp with a heavy heart.

Azhiyuran, who visited the Thalaiyuthu camp with Thiru records his thoughts about the cultural impact on the refugees some of whom have spent as much as 16 years in the camp.

Azhiyuran says,

திருநெல்வேலியிலிருந்து மதுரை செல்லும் சாலையில் சங்கர் சிமெண்ட் தொழிற்சாலைக்கு பின்புறமாக இருக்கிறது இந்த முகாம்.சிமெண்ட் நுண்துகள்கள் விரவிக்கிடக்கிற முகாமில் யாவரின் முகத்திலும் வறட்சியான சிர்ப்பையே காண முடிகிறது. அண்மையில் அயலகத்திலிருந்து வந்திருந்த திரு, தூத்துக்குடியிலிருந்து வந்திருந்த வரவணையானோடு நானும் இணைந்து தாழையூத்து அகதிகள் முகாமிற்குப் போயிருந்தோம்…

The dialect has changed not only among the school going children but also among the adults. When asked, adults do admit that their accent has definitely changed and now resembles the Tirunelveli Tamil. Most of the refugees in the camp were former fishermen. Earlier their diet consisted mainly of fish and sea-food. But, that kind of diet is not possible, because of high cost. So, most of them have become vegetarians. And, even if some people buy fish once-in-a-while, they feel quite embarrassed to cook and eat amidst all the other people in such a cramped space.

thalaiyuthu_camp3.JPG

Azhiyuran goes on to talk about weddings. He says,

Refugees from one camp get married to other refugees in other camps scattered around Tamil Nadu. It's not possible for them to print out wedding invitations. Nor was it possible for them to conduct the wedding in a wedding-hall. Hence, the weddings take place in front of their shelters. Life for the newly-weds are quite horrible in these camps. This delicate matter was barely touched upon by some of the refugees but, we understood their plight and felt very bad. More than anything, death affects them most, and brings out their dilemma in full force. The refugees are unable to let loved ones back in Sri Lanka know about the deaths family members here at the camp. Hence a father passes away without the knowledge of the son back in Sri Lanka.”

If this is the state of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in India, the plight of the internally displaced people (IDP) is far worse. Accounts about the IDP could be read here and here(Tamil).

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