Plight of the Refugees
‘Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.’ — Albert Einstein, A Study in Simplicity
Although the world is now called a global village, there is no denying the fact that mankind is still divided on the basis of nationalities, countries, ethnicity, religion, sociocultural diversities, etc. The dilemma is that human beings tend to view these differences with an inherent sense of bias which at times culminates in violence, forcing an exodus of people across international borders, transforming their status from citizens to that of refugees. Such is the morbid story of horror because of which a terrorized population is compelled to leave its homeland and move to alien abodes that may or may not be hospitable but have to be accepted as new homes. As this phenomenon began taking its roots, the 1951 Convention regarding the “Status of Refugees” became the principal document for laying down rights of refugees and legal obligations of governments; Article 1 of the Convention describes a refugee as someone who has fled his/her country “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”
Says Prasanth Sekar, 21, an engineering student whose parents moved from Sri Lanka, their paradise island, to an Indian refugee camp at Keezhpudhupattu in the 1990s:
“Sri Lanka for me, to be honest, is more than anything else, just a distant island. My mum and dad say that it was a great place and that it was much better than where we are now. Snake gourd, any vegetable that you can think of, was richer there. But that’s just what
they say; I myself don’t really know.”
Maithripala Sirisena, Sri Lanka’s recently elected Sinhalese President appears determined to pave the ground for repatriation of the Tamils who took refuge in neighbouring India. On assumption of power, one of the first measures his government took was commencing a round of negotiations with India for drawing up a suitable strategy to return approximately 100,000 refugees scattered in about 100 camps in the Tamil Nadu state. It might be a source of excitement for those refugees who would want to spend their remaining years in their birth country but for the new generation, there are many unanswered questions, many doubts and much anxiety as to their future.
In the last quarter of 2014, a study titled “Durable Solutions for Sri Lankan Tamil Refugees in India” was conducted by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai. It revealed that 67 percent of 100,000 Tamil refugees interviewed, did not want to return to Sri Lanka, 23 percent of the 520 families questioned wanted to return home while only 4 percent wished to migrate to a third country to join relatives ( The Hindu, October 27, 2014).
As reported by The Times of India (January 30, 2015), E. M. Sudarsana Natchiappan, head of the Parliamentary Standing Committee, after interacting with refugees at the Ramanathapuram Collectorate, said that Sri Lankan Tamil refugees were willing to return to their homeland if the governments of India and Sri Lanka assured them that their land would be returned and their livelihood was assured. People were worried about safety to their lives, property and job. If the governments could allay these concerns, most people were willing to return and those who wanted to remain in India were people who were born here, he said. "More than 1,600 refugee children were born in India. They are Indian citizens. Also, refugees who have stayed in India for more than 30 years are not eligible for government jobs in Lanka. They want Indian citizenship."
The entire situation has become all the more challenging for both the governments of India as well as Sri Lanka. On the one hand, there is a dire need for Sri Lanka to reclaim and resettle its citizens in order to restore the country’s reputation in the world and, on the other, establish a conducive socio-political environment that would attract members of the alienated younger generation to return home. On the other hand, those who are desirous of staying back in India would need to be naturalized to allow them access to government jobs and other amenities, provided the Indians are willing to absorb them.
Meanwhile, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) that cooperates with governments along with NGOs and other stakeholders to protect, assist and find durable solutions for refugees has increased its capacity to conduct refugee status determination (RSD) and resettlement submissions. It would be working closely with the Government of Sri Lanka in facilitating not only the voluntary return of Sri Lankan refugees in safety and dignity but would also help them to reintegrate through community mobilization projects. If it comes as good news to the returning Sri Lankans, UNHCR would liaise with relevant people to help a smooth handover in its process of phasing out its programme for the IDPs in 2015. Sri Lankan refugees interested in voluntary repatriation may approach the nearest UNHCR office in their country of asylum. Once the request is processed, they are given air tickets to Sri Lanka and are helped to obtain relevant travel documents. In Sri Lanka, UNHCR staff meets returnees at the airport and provide them with a modest transport grant to help them make their way home.
Although the number of refugees arriving home is steadily increasing, perhaps much to the joy of the older generation, but for the Indian born youth, it would be an uphill task of readjusting to what may be a completely different world from the one they were raised in. In the event of a positive response from the Sri Lankan government by ensuring security to life and property along with provision of a decent livelihood, the younger lot could awaken a sense of loyalty towards their country of origin and adapt to the same environment that was earlier enjoyed by their parents.