Home Ministry justifies excluding SL refugees from Citizenship Bill

Bill seeks to provide citizenship to non-Muslims from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan

February 01, 2019 01:27 am | Updated 01:27 am IST - CHENNAI

The Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has justified the exclusion of Sri Lanka’s Tamil refugees, most of whom are living in Tamil Nadu, from the ambit of the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Bill.

The MHA hinted to the Joint Parliamentary Committee, which had studied the legislation and submitted its report to the Parliament in early January, that refugees from Sri Lanka and Myanmar among others were eligible for Long Term Visa (LTV) if they proved they had been “victims of oppression in their countries of origin on account of race, religion, sex, nationality, ethnic identity, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

The LTVs, if granted, would enable refugees to enjoy facilities such as gaining employment in the private sector and undertaking studies in any academic institution.

The Central government, in December 2011, issued a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) to protect the interests of such persons. This was why the case of refugees from Sri Lanka need not be considered for inclusion in the scope of the Bill, according to the MHA.

Adopted by the Lok Sabha, the Bill seeks to provide citizenship to non-Muslims from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan who came to India on or before December 31, 2014, due to “religious persecution.” As for Tamil refugees, nearly one lakh are living in the State, of whom two-thirds are in camps set up by the authorities and the rest are living on their own.

But the question of applicability of the SOP to the refugees from Sri Lanka has been raised by experts, who point out that generally LTVs have not been issued to the Tamil refugees.

A former official from the State Rehabilitation Department pointed out that the status of refugees is given initially by the State government and later ratified by the Central government. But in the eyes of law, refugees from Sri Lanka are all regarded as illegal migrants.

V. Suryanarayan, former director, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras, said other than “refugee cards” issued at the time of entry into the country, the Tamils do not have any document in support of their status. If they want to go back to Sri Lanka voluntarily, relevant travel documents are issued by the Sri Lankan Deputy High Commission and they are meant only for that purpose.

E.M. Sudarsana Natchiappan, former Union Minister and president of the Indian Society of International Law, and K.M. Parivelan, associate professor, School of Law, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, strongly argued that it would not be too late for the government to include the refugees in the ambit of the legislation, as they broadly fulfill the criteria. Dr. Parivelan said the authorities should keep in mind two factors — the experience of persecution by the refugees and the status of being persons of Indian origin.

Sabapathipillai Nadesalingam, activist, said barring those who wanted to go back, other refugees should be accorded citizenship, as they had lived in Tamil Nadu for long. Initially, persons who were born in India could be given citizenship. In case the issue of providing citizenship was not possible to anyone, the refugees could at least be given the LTVs, he added.

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