interview | Austin Fernando Tamil Nadu

‘Sri Lanka wants Tamil refugees to return’

High Commissioner to India discusses voluntary repatriation and relief package for returnees

At 76, Austin Fernando, a veteran of the Sri Lankan bureaucracy, is perhaps the oldest to hold the post of High Commissioner to India. During his visit to Chennai to obtain first-hand knowledge of the situation pertaining to Tamil refugees, he said that “Sri Lanka needs them. We want them to return”. Excerpts:

What has brought you to Chennai?

We had a team of officials come here from Colombo, including Sumith Nakandala, Additional Secretary [Ministry of Foreign Affairs]. He brought officials from other departments, like the Controller General of Immigration and Emigration and representatives from the Registrar General’s office. They interviewed refugees, who have two important problems. One is about the ‘troubled document’, that is passport. The other is birth certificate. There are other issues like the exit permit, which have to do with the Indian government. But these are the two [problems that] the Sri Lankan government has to look into, and satisfy the needs of the people. We had got them [refugees] to come here [office of the Deputy High Commissioner] to meet our officials and tried to resolve their problems as much as possible.

How many such cases exist here?

There were 100 people who were interviewed over two days, while dealing with the cases of 211 persons. Each person who came spoke about his or her wife or husband or children.

How is the process of voluntary repatriation of refugees being carried out? Is it happening in an incremental way?

Voluntary repatriation is not an easy [task]. When they [refugees] [get] repatriated, they wouldn’t want to get into difficult situations once again. They would prefer comfortable or convenient situations.

There are two ways of looking at voluntary repatriation. One, the people who send the refugees — in this case, Mr. Krishnamoorthy [Deputy High Commissioner] and the Indian government, who want to send the people through voluntary repatriation. The other is those who receive the refugees. When they go back to Sri Lanka, there is a need to get these people resettled comfortably, conveniently and acceptably.

What is the position on the structured package of assistance for those who are going back?

The package has several components. The basics have to be attended to, like house, land to live [on] and assistance for resettlement and rehabilitation.

When Prime Minister [Ranil Wickremesinghe] was here [in New Delhi in October 2018], a decision was taken that the verification of people – 3,815 names [of the refugees] — should be undertaken by the Indian government. The returnee package has to be worked out and that is the job of the Sri Lankan government.

I am not sure how far the verification [process] has progressed. As we are trying to get refugees back to their home areas, there must be some package, which has to be upgraded.

In their interactions with you, did the refugees convey any concerns or expectations about returning?

They all talked about livelihood development. That is a very important thing. I went with Mr. Nakandala and met people at the [M.S.] Swaminathan Foundation, which works in this area. We want them to come out with a proposition as they had done some work in the 1990s.

Out of 97,000 refugees, according to your assessment, how many are willing to return?

It will be known when the verification process is done. It is probably for the Home Affairs Ministry here to decide.

The Indian side will carry out a comprehensive survey to ascertain the intention of the refugees to return voluntarily.

What is your message to the refugees living in Tamil Nadu?

I think Sri Lanka needs them. We want them to return. And, after a disastrous situation, people do not get the best of things which they would like to have. But we will try to give the best [offer] to everyone who returns.

Recommended for you
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jul 8, 2020 3:11:22 PM |

Next Story