LANKA’S FOR­GOT­TEN PEO­PLE SEEK SO­LACE

ON SRI LANKA

The Gulf Today - - Opinion - BY T. RA­MAKR­ISH­NAN

In re­cent months, the fo­cus of the me­dia has been on the Ro­hingya refugees in In­dia. But the plight of Sri Lankan refugees, who have been here for nearly 35 years, ap­pears to have gone out of the pub­lic con­scious­ness.

The pa­thetic con­di­tion of shel­ters, re­stric­tions on move­ment, and lim­ited scope of liveli­hood op­por­tu­ni­ties af­fect the com­mu­nity of one lakh-odd Sri Lankan refugees, who have been liv­ing in Tamil Nadu ever since the anti-tamil pogrom in Sri Lanka in July 1983. Be­sides, state­less­ness is a ma­jor prob­lem for a sec­tion of refugees whose roots are from cen­tral parts of Sri Lanka, gen­er­ally called hill coun­try.

The refugees also suf­fer from so­cial and psy­cho­log­i­cal prob­lems as re­ports of sui­cides, school dropouts and child mar­riage show. Many mid­dle-aged refugees worry about their chil­dren’s fu­ture, given the fact that 40 per cent of camp refugees are below 18 years. As 28,500 refugees are said to be state­less, the Sri Lankan gov­ern­ment, in 2003 and 2009, amended its laws to en­able eas­ier repa­tri­a­tion. Tamil po­lit­i­cal par­ties on the other side of the Palk Strait would love the refugees to re­turn so that the strength of elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the Tamil-ma­jor­ity North­ern Prov­ince will go up in the Sri Lankan Par­lia­ment.

YET, THE vol­un­tary re­verse low of refugees has hap­pened only in­cre­men­tally. Even the end of the Ee­lam War in May 2009 and the de­ci­sion of In­dian au­thor­i­ties in Jan­uary 2016 to waive visa fees and over­stay penalty on a case by case ba­sis for will­ing per­sons have not made a huge dif­fer­ence. In the last eight and a half years, hardly 10% of the refugee pop­u­la­tion (9,238 peo­ple) went back through a scheme Im­ple­mented By IN­DIAN ofi­cials Along with THE OFICE of THE UNITED Na­tions HIGH Com­mis­sioner for Refugees (UNHCR). There is per­haps good rea­son for the refugees’ re­luc­tance to re­turn.

Around 62,000 refugees, liv­ing in 107 camps across Tamil Nadu, have been re­ceiv­ing var­i­ous re­lief mea­sures of the Cen­tral and State gov­ern­ments. In ad­di­tion, in re­cent years, the Tamil Nadu gov­ern­ment has taken steps for scores of young boys and girls of the refugee com­mu­nity to join pro­fes­sional cour­ses, par­tic­u­larly en­gi­neer­ing. This HAS BENEIT­TED EL­I­GI­BLE CAN­DI­DATES Among 36,800 non-camp refugees in the State too.

Re­gard­less of the qual­ity of hous­ing and the na­ture of their jobs, sev­eral camp refugees have ex­pe­ri­enced a per­cep­ti­ble im­prove­ment in their life­style. Be­sides, a new gen­er­a­tion has been raised com­pletely in Tamil Nadu and it would not be a sur­prise for many among them to re­gard Sri Lanka as an alien coun­try, how­ever nos­tal­gic their par­ents may be for Jaffna or Mul­laitivu.

The refugees know well that if they go back to Sri Lanka, they will not get many of THE Beneits they HAVE BEEN en­joy­ing in Tamil Nadu. What es­pe­cially both­ers them is “lack of or no liveli­hood op­por­tu­ni­ties”, as found in a sur­vey of refugee re­turnees by the UNHCR, Colombo, in 2015. This sit­u­a­tion may not im­prove in the near fu­ture given the state of the Sri Lankan econ­omy.

The refugees from the hill coun­try are land­less. Un­less they are given some quan­tum of land, they will be not be in­clined to go back. One has to keep in mind the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion in the hill coun­try re­gion too where the Tamils are no longer in­ter­ested in work­ing on tea plan­ta­tions.

At present, for both In­dia and Sri Lanka, the repa­tri­a­tion of refugees does not seem to be a pri­or­ity. But they can­not af­ford con­tin­u­ing with the sta­tus quo ei­ther, as Tamil Nadu holds the dis­tinc­tion of host­ing the largest num­ber of refugees in In­dia. It would be in the in­ter­ests of the two coun­tries to thrash out the is­sue sooner than later. While for In­dia a long-stand­ing prob­lem would be re­solved, for Sri Lanka it would be a step to­wards eth­nic rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.

In fact, po­lit­i­cal changes in Tamil Nadu in the last year pro­vide a win­dow of op­por­tu­nity for In­dia to re­vive talks with Sri Lanka. The two gov­ern­ments can come out with a com­pre­hen­sive pack­age on vol­un­tary repa­tri­a­tion, af­ter in­volv­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the refugee com­mu­nity, the Tamil Nadu gov­ern­ment and Sri Lanka’s North­ern Pro­vin­cial Coun­cil.

For refugees who want to stay back, In­dia can con­sider pro­vid­ing them cit­i­zen­ship, as it did for refugees from Pak­istan and Afghanistan. Of course, it has the right not to grant cit­i­zen­ship to trou­ble-mak­ers. If ev­ery­thing goes off smoothly, Au­thor­i­ties CAN in­ally Close down camps in Tamil Nadu, bring­ing an end to an episode that has lasted longer than the civil war of Sri Lanka.

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