Inmates of Sri Lankan refugee camps have several grievances. For them, the physical conditions in the camp — unpaved roads, open drains and a large number of dogs — did not matter. The event of the day alone, it seemed, was in their thoughts
Jervin and Jonsi, two young Sri Lankan Tamil refugees, made a new beginning in their lives on Wednesday, an auspicious day as per the Tamil almanac. Immediately after their wedding, the couple — both in colourful attire and wearing garlands — took a stroll along with their family members around the Gummidipoondi camp in the afternoon.
For them, the physical conditions in the camp — unpaved roads, open drains and a large number of dogs — did not matter. The event of the day alone, it seemed, was in their thoughts.
An inmate of the Gummidipoondi camp, Mr. Jervin, who works as an operator in a nearby firm, has been living there for 20 years. He is now used to the conditions in the camp. For the time being, he makes no issue about them. He says he and his wife, who is from a Virudhunagar camp, are going to live with his parents in the Gummidipoondi camp, which is about 45 km from Chennai.
However, Mr. Jervin's fellow inmates have a long list of demands. The issues raised by them and people living in Puzhal camp, about 20 km away, pertain to their immediate requirements and livelihood opportunities.
Selvarani, who is living in Gummidipoondi for 22 years, says that lack of proper roads is a major problem. Sreniya, a young mother of three children, feels that inadequate water supply is another issue that bothers the inmates. There are no individual water connections but a number of water tanks have been kept in different places. Santhi, a resident of the Puzhal camp, says that pulses are not given to them under the public distribution system.
Dharmalingam, who came to India as a refugee in 1990 and living in Puzhal since then, strongly feels that the authorities should immediately address the question of housing, which, he says, is the biggest problem of the refugees. The average size of each dwelling unit in Puzhal is around 100 square feet.
Just as in the case of other facilities, bathrooms and toilets are to be shared by the inmates. “We have to stand in queue for everything here,” says Malar, another Puzhal resident. [Totally, the State has 114 camps including two special camps and about 68,600 people are living in them]
Unlike in Gummidipoondi, the houses in Puzhal are congested. But, the inmates here have the advantage of being closer to the city.
Better amenities apart, the livelihood question bothers them a lot. Menaka, who heads a tailoring unit in Gummidipoondi, says that not many youth get gainful employment. Invariably, the men folk are employed in factories and establishments in and around their camps. The men are paid daily wages. A substantial number of the refugees take to painting.
Critically linked to employment is education. There are a handful of young graduates in Gummidipoondi and Puzhal. The absence of preferential treatment in admission for professional courses and lack of scholarship schemes are cited among the factors that discourage many from pursuing higher studies.
“In the last two years, there is a perceptible improvement. More and more youngsters are pursuing higher studies,” says M. Sakkariyas, Director, Advocacy, Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation (OfERR), which, among others, runs programmes for imparting skills among the refugees.
At present, about 1,180 students including around 600 girls are in college. As for admission to engineering courses, 30 students have joined this year till now. Last year, 17 students were admitted to the courses, according to the data available with the OfERR.
More educational opportunities
Since last year, children of Sri Lankan refugees in the State are permitted to participate in counselling for engineering courses along with Open Competition candidates for I year B.E./B.Tech courses. From this academic year, the refugees' children are allowed for admission, through lateral entry, for B.E./B.Tech. and for post-graduate courses — MBA / MCA/ M.E./M.Tech.
Higher education is one among the areas where the new State government is paying renewed attention for the community of refugees. Hike in cash doles, extension of all welfare schemes of the government to the refugees, provision of revolving fund to 416 women self-help groups of the refugees and sanction of Rs. 25 crore towards infrastructure development in camps are some of the recent steps taken by the government.
Scholarship schemes for higher studies and a skill development programme are being evolved for the benefit of youth in the camps, says an official. The administration has also proposed the construction of 2,700 houses, which is under the consideration of the government.