Making returning citizens feel at home

Tamil politicians, activists are asking govt. to make it easy for refugees to return to Sri Lanka

December 21, 2019 09:11 pm | Updated 09:11 pm IST

In the widespread resistance to the recently-passed Citizenship (Amendment) Act, many have repeatedly highlighted the omission of Sri Lankans among persecuted communities in the neighbourhood who now qualify for Indian citizenship, for the first time based on their religion.

Nearly 1,00,000 Sri Lankan Tamils live in India, mostly in refugee camps across Tamil Nadu. They fled a civil war in their homeland — Sri Lanka’s north and east — that spanned over 30 years, brutally destroying life and property. Over the years, some Sri Lankan Tamils have returned from India.

As the pace of return accelerated after the war ended in 2009, nearly 16,000 are back home now.

With the spotlight falling on the community, many in India have challenged the Centre on why Sri Lankan refugees don’t qualify. Sri Lanka allows its people to hold dual citizenship, but India doesn’t. Consequently, if a Sri Lankan seeks Indian citizenship, she has to necessarily forego her Sri Lankan citizenship. There is no exhaustive data on what the Sri Lankans living in India want in these circumstances.

Sri Lankan Tamil political leaders and others working with returnees say it’s time that Sri Lanka removed all the hurdles to their smooth return, should they wish to get back.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the main political grouping representing Tamils in Sri Lanka’s war-hit north and east, has said it would like to see Sri Lankan Tamils return. “I don’t wish to comment on what laws must be enacted in India. Our own position on Sri Lankan refugees living in India is that they must return to their country,” TNA spokesman M.A. Sumanthiran told media in Jaffna recently. “If they choose to live there [in India], they could as per international law, and if Indian law accommodates that position. But if you ask what the TNA’s position is, it is that they should come back. They are our people, who were forced to flee the country because of the situation here.”

Right to return

When a journalist asked him if the TNA’s position was driven by a desire to expand its vote bank, Mr. Sumanthiran said: “This is not about our vote bank at all. This is about their fundamental right to return, they are people of this soil.”

The Jaffna legislator added the Sri Lankan government must make all arrangements for their smooth return, underscoring housing and livelihoods for those returning. “We admit that there are inadequacies in the process. Even the government we backed didn’t fully implement all the measures needed, despite our persistent requests. It must be done now.” A decade after the civil war, more people — “about 60-70%” — appear inclined to return, but much of that depends on how easy the process can be made, according to Sinnathambby Sooriyakumari, president of Organisation for Elankai Refugees’ Rehabilitation — Ceylon.

In her view, the Sri Lankan government needs to create an apex body to look into the resettlement of returnees, and to streamline paperwork. “At the moment, we have to coordinate with so many ministries — from education, health, foreign affairs, public administration to get their documents in order,” she explained. For children of Sri Lankans born in India, applying for a National Identity Card in Sri Lanka is the chief task, as it necessary for every other application, including citizenship. “There are deadlines and penalties involved, so the process is pretty tedious,” she said.

Converting education certificates, marriage registration and obtaining formal citizenship documents are only part of the logistical hassle, which also includes physically travelling here with assets and belongings accumulated over decades.

Basic needs such as food and shelter are very real, everyday concerns that returnees confront. Some of their family homes may have been destroyed in the war, or their ancestral land may be under military occupation. There are no jobs, or thriving business waiting for young returnees. “But at least it’s home,” she noted. “They say this in Tamil... even if a rat is in a net, it makes a difference when it’s the rat’s own net.”

Addressing Colombo-based foreign correspondents recently, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said he did not wish to comment on the new Act in India. Asked if he thought the Sri Lankans living in India must come back, he said “yes.” Mr. Rajapaksa has repeatedly emphasised development over power devolution for Sri Lanka’s war-affected Tamil community. Whether his version of development speaks to locals and allures those hoping to return will be clear in the next five years.

( Meera Srinivasan is The Hindu’s Colombo correspondent )

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