Sri Lankan refugees in Tamil Nadu — A ‘house’ away from home

Regardless of some economic progress that they may have experienced since they moved to Tamil Nadu in search of sanctuary, there remains a widespread feeling of discomfort among them about still being identified as refugees

Updated - June 25, 2023 12:18 pm IST

Published - June 25, 2023 01:25 am IST

A section of refugees of the Pavalathanur Eri camp in Salem is not inclined to move to the nearby Thatchankattur where 244 houses are getting ready. 

A section of refugees of the Pavalathanur Eri camp in Salem is not inclined to move to the nearby Thatchankattur where 244 houses are getting ready.  | Photo Credit: E. Lakshmi Narayanan

In a few weeks, the 40th anniversary of the anti-Tamil pogrom in Sri Lanka, a defining moment in the history of a prolonged ethnic strife, would be marked by Tamils across the globe. The tragic event of 1983 was followed by an exodus of Tamils from Sri Lanka to India, Tamil Nadu in particular.

Rameswaram in the southern coast of the State, which was the key transit point for the migration of the poor from the southern districts to Sri Lanka 200 years ago, for employment in the tea estates and for reverse migration in the wake of the 1964 and 1974 bilateral agreements, became the hotbed of the influx of refugees from Sri Lanka. Between July 1983 and August 2012, around 3.04 lakh persons came to the State. At one point, Tamil Nadu had 2 lakh refugees. When an economic crisis hit the neighbouring country early last year, Rameswaram was once again in the limelight with “economic migrants” coming in a modest number from Sri Lanka, reaching the shores of Dhanushkodi. According to an estimate, there are 258 such persons, all lodged at the Mandapam Rehabilitation Centre.

Not many who came to Tamil Nadu in 1983 continue to live in the State. But a substantial number of the refugees living in rehabilitation camps are those who came here in 1990 after the outbreak of the second phase of the Eelam War, consequent to the withdrawal of Indian troops from Sri Lanka. In the last 30-odd years, their lives — at least in one respect, shelter — underwent several changes. “Originally, the roof [in the camp] was made of tin sheets; then, it became asbestos. Later, we had tiles. Now, we are going to have cement concrete roofing,” M. Thirugnanamoorthy, a camp leader in Kanniyakumari where there are four camps, succinctly captures the evolution of the houses that accommodate the refugees.

The camp leader is referring to the housing project that envisages the construction of 7,469 houses in two phases. The first phase covers 3,510 houses, of which 986 have been fully built and 960 are in the process of completion. “In a couple of months, we hope to complete the first phase of the project,” says an official associated with the project, adding that work orders would be issued shortly for the second phase. For the purpose of execution, the Rehabilitation Department has roped in the services of the Rural Development and Panchayat Raj Department. To monitor the implementation of the project, a committee of beneficiaries has been formed at every place of construction, though its efficacy is not consistent.

Pros and cons 

It is the housing project that has become the major topic of discussion among the refugees. The project is drawing both appreciation and criticism, perhaps in equal measure. Mr. Thirugnanamoorthy is conscious that the unit cost of a rural housing project for Indian nationals is hardly ₹3 lakh; whereas, in the case of the housing project for the refugees, it is at least ₹5 lakh. His camp would be covered in the next phase of the project. The official clarifies that the unit cost of an individual house is kept at ₹5 lakh, while it goes up to ₹5.65 lakh for a group of four houses.

Even though the construction is carried out broadly as per a pre-planned design, suggestions for changes get acceptance of the officials. At Melmonavoor camp in Vellore district, where 320 families have been living for years, two young leaders of the camp say the authorities had promptly agreed to their demand for lofts in the houses. Houses for 220 families are being built there now.

Perhaps, the best compliment has come from Selvanandhini, a resident of the camp on Malapatti Road in Dindigul district, where Chief Minister M.K. Stalin, in September last, declared open 321 newly constructed dwellings built at a cost of ₹17.84 crore. She says, “I may not have been in a position to possess such a home even in my own homeland of Sri Lanka.” Each unit has a room, hall, kitchen and toilet, totalling 320 square feet. The camp, spanning over 3.5 hectares, has a common overhead tank. More importantly, it is easy to access government schools from here.

The housing project in other districts is progressing at its own pace. In Tiruchi, 30 newly built houses at Vazhavanthankottai, one of the two campsites, are ready to occupy, while at Kottapattu, which houses the other camp, the construction of 100 houses is getting delayed on account of the plan to shift the camp to a place on the outskirts of Tiruchi city, says Collector M. Pradeep Kumar.

In neighbouring Karur, the district administration originally planned to build 225 houses for the Rayanur camp at Thoranakkalpatti. Since the land earmarked for the construction of an additional bus stand was chosen to build the houses, local people opposed the decision. No steps have been taken to identify an alternative site.

There is a section of refugees who is reluctant to move to the upcoming houses, citing one reason or the other. For example, in the Taramangalam block in Omalur taluk of Salem, a group of refugees, especially women, of the Pavalathanur Eri camp is not inclined to move to Thatchankattur, a few kilometres away, where 244 houses are nearing completion. The protesting women say accessibility is a major factor. They do point out inadequacies in their existing camp — for example, drains getting choked — but, as Vadivukkarasi, one of the refugees, says, “If the authorities ensure that the facilities that we are enjoying here are made available to us in the other place, we will relocate.” Quality of construction is another problem they cite. Field officials, while not disputing their point fully, say they are taking steps to address their concerns.

Those who have been part of the housing project from the beginning say that as in the case of others, the work was taken up in Pavalathanur only after taking the consent of the people concerned. More than all these factors, lack of space in houses is mentioned by many refugees as the key issue. About 10 years ago, when the government built or renovated houses, the size of each house was 161 square feet. Now, it is 300 square feet, excluding the toilet. But, as S. Selvarathinam, coordinator, OfERR (Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation) in Tiruchi points out, the number of family members increases over time, causing space constraints. As a majority of the refugees have been living in the State for so many years, they have acquired many consumer durables. “The new houses may be just enough to keep our belongings. We may not have any living space” is the view shared by many. What the refugees in Pavalathanur and Melmonavoor feel is that in the previous housing projects, there was space for extension of the houses, while no such arrangement is possible in the existing scheme with no provision for vertical development of the upcoming houses.

Request for new family cards 

However, Mr. Thirugnanamoorthy says that in the event of anyone getting married, the authorities entertain the request for the issue of new family cards to the couple, while removing the names of the newly wed persons from their original family cards. Subsequently, new families become entitled to fresh houses. Besides, the officials respond that the objective of the State government is to make life as smooth as possible for the refugees. “While being sensitive and receptive to their issues and problems, we are trying our level best under the given circumstances,” an official explains. Apart from housing and other infrastructure, the State government spends nearly ₹150 crore a year for a host of welfare measures, whereas the Centre pays the State ₹70 crore in reimbursement.

Housing is not the only aspect that the present government is paying attention to. Skilling is an area where the authorities are making conscious efforts to provide the refugees with opportunities to become economically empowered with a fairly wide exposure. Otherwise, as found in Melmonavoor, invariably many refugees elsewhere, through self-help groups or other means, would like to restrict the scope of coverage for their products or services to their camps. “We would like them to explore opportunities available outside their camps,” points out the official. Together with the Skill Development Corporation, training is being provided to many in different skills — driving of two- and four-wheelers, computer courses, embroidery and night-cloth stitching. Over 3,200 refugees have been covered. At least, 3,000 more will benefit in the subsequent round. While there is no bar on obtaining a driver’s licence, a refugee requires the clearance of the Reserve Bank of India to own a movable asset — say, a two-wheeler — and this limits their capacity to improve their economic well being, concedes a specialist in the area of refugees.

Feeling of discomfort

Regardless of the economic progress that many refugees may have experienced all these years, there is a widespread feeling of discomfort among them about being identified as refugees. “Over 30 years ago, my father and I came here as refugees. We are still being called refugees. I have two daughters. At least I want them to be called Indian citizens,” says Mr. Thirugnanamoorthy, referring to the vexatious issue of acquiring citizenship for the community of refugees. There is also a view that the Central government should, at least, permit relocation to a third country. Most of the non-camp refugees, too, do not want to be known in their neighbourhood as refugees. In fact, at the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the government had announced assistance for this category of refugees too, only one-fifth of them had come forward to receive it.

Conscious of the sensitivity, the State government, in October 2021, formed a committee for suggesting long-term solutions. A plan is expected from the committee soon. Meanwhile, the profiling of all the camp refugees — in terms of their origin or roots — has been completed. In this regard, the authorities have taken the help of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Even though the number of refugees willing to go back to Sri Lanka is declining, many camp refugees have taken Sri Lankan citizenship in recent months. While it may take some more years for the refugees to overcome the pain of the past, the initiative of the State to provide better housing will surely take some load off their emotional stress.

(With inputs from L. Srikrishna in Madurai and Ancy Donal Madonna in Tiruchi)

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