Sunday Times (Sri Lanka)

Former refugees return secretly to escape COVID

- By Sandran Rubatheesa­n

With the coronaviru­s galloping free in the neighbouri­ng state of Tamil Nadu, the Navy is on high alert for Sri Lankan- origin refugees willing to risk illegal sea passage home to escape a worsening health crisis coupled with economic difficulti­es on foreign soil.

At least seven such refugees have reached home since the pandemic hit Tamil Nadu with a continuous lockdown being imposed there, police said.

"We have strengthen­ed our patrolling unit around the clock along the Internatio­nal Maritime Boundary Lane region to monitor illegal passage into our territoria­l waters. At night, we have doubled our patrolling units," Captain Indika se Silva, the newly-appointed Media Coordinato­r of the Navy, told the Sunday Times.

On July 3, four people, including two Sri Lankan- origin refugees, were taken into Navy custody when their fishing boat, skippered by two local f i s h e r men, re a ch e d Kankesanth­urai in Jaffna. Police questionin­g revealed they had decided to come to Sri Lanka because of their economic situation in India and poor medical facilities for refugees in camps.

Tamil Nadu is experienci­ng the longest lockdown coupled with skyrocketi­ng coronaviru­s cases.

Large sums are being paid to boat skippers by refugees for the nearly two- hour- long illegal sea passage from Rameswaram to Mannar.

Last month, a 33- year- old father with his eight- year- old daughter made this dangerous journey with the help of a fisherman who had allowed them onto his trawler. They had been living in the Chuloorpat­ty Sri Lankan refugee camp in Tamil Nadu.

They arrived at the Savukkukaa­du area in Mannar before dawn early one Sunday and reached their family residence in Periyamadu by walking a few kilometers.

The father, J. Pulendran, had left his hometown with his family in 1990 and had lived in the special refugee camps run by the Tamil Nadu government for decades. According to official Indian government reports, at least 100,000 Sri Lankan refugees currently reside in staterun special camps and others under a special pass system spread across Tamil Nadu.

Soon after neighbours learned about the arrival of Mr. Pulendran and his daughter they tipped off local health authoritie­s and police. Both were taken into custody and produced before the Mannar magistrate before being sent to a quarantine camp in Kalutara.

“I left India due personal family issues. It has nothing to do with the current corona situation,” Mr. Pulendran told The Sunday Times from his home in Periyamadu after completing two weeks of quarantine. He faces legal action for entering the country without a valid visa.

As a precaution­ary measure, the Mannar District Secretaria­t office called for a meeting last week with local authoritie­s and the navy about the recent pattern of Sri Lankan origin refugees returning home illegally and the possible spread of coronaviru­s to the district from Tamil Nadu.

Mannar District Secretary C. A. Mohan Ras said his office had taken precaution­s to face this situation as panicked locals were expressing concerns about those who were returning home surreptiti­ously and trying to mingle with the local population without informing the authoritie­s.

“It shouldn’t be interprete­d as Sri Lankan origin refugees not being welcome here,” Mr. Mohan Ras said.” They can return home any time by following proper regulation­s. But the current situation is not ideal for return.”

In the recent past, hundreds of Sri Lankan refugees returned home via Mannar and were resettled on their own lands with government help.

With the assistance of the coast guard, the navy has stepped up patrols and surveillan­ce in northern waters due to the concerns of local authoritie­s worried about a possible ungoverned influx of refugees.

"Our patrolling units are committed not only to stop this alone but to prevent all sorts of criminal activities in the border sea including smuggling drugs and gold," Captain de Silva said, pointing to a naval operation in waters around Mandaitivu island off Jaffna; 164kg of “Kerala cannabis” were seized in the operation on July 2.

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