Tamil Nadu

Sri Lankan refugee camp in Madurai becomes a containment zone

With complete lockdown in force, the four lane wears a deserted look as all vehicles are off the road at Otthakadai in Madurai on April 28, 2020.

With complete lockdown in force, the four lane wears a deserted look as all vehicles are off the road at Otthakadai in Madurai on April 28, 2020.   | Photo Credit: G. Moorthy

Questions regarding the future rattle residents

Families from the Sri Lankan refugee camp in Koodal Nagar were in for a shock when officials from the Health and Police department began barricading their area on April 26. Word quickly spread that a 36 year-old driver from their camp had tested positive for COVID-19.

A senior official from the Health Department of the Madurai Corporation said that they had tested all the contacts of the patient including relatives and employers. He added that they immediately began asking people to stay at home and reiterated it continuously.

“We understood that it was essential to remain in our houses to ensure that we can contain the disease spread. The district administration and Corporation officials walked us through the entire process and we were asked to remain in complete quarantine for a brief period. Everyone quickly accustomed,” said K. Karthik, a 37 year-old resident.

Mr. Karthik and his family have been residing in the camp since the year 1990 after seeking refuge in India. Along with him, there are around 320 families in the camp. Although they have gone through the experience of escaping their country to seek refuge in India, living through a pandemic is pretty challenging too, he says. But help of officials and kind hearted strangers have kept many residents there afloat.

“Health workers regularly knock on our doorstep and ask us if we have experienced any symptoms. They also spray disinfectants every day. Police are monitoring our activities through drone cameras and the Corporation is ensuring that we receive proper vegetable supply and no one is allowed to enter the camp without permission,” he says. Some politicians and locals too have come and dropped off dry rations. The kind gesture has helped many families ensure that they at least get a meal a day.

Many residents like Mr. Karthik are thankful for the support they have received. However, all the free time they have in their hands has made them wonder about an income-less present and an uncertain future.

T. Silandhiran, a painter who has been residing in the camp, says that most Sri Lankan Tamil refugees are daily wage workers. They work as painters, construction workers and linesmen. They live on their daily wages and barely get enough money to save. With the extension of the lockdown, Mr. Silandhiran says that it may be difficult for his family to afford the ₹100 bag of vegetables that the Corporation distributes through its mobile vans. “I have to find a neighbour who will split the vegetables with me because I simply cannot afford the bags for longer. I am not sure what I will do,” he says.

Even before COVID-19, Mr. Silandhiran says that many people from the camp had difficulties finding jobs. “Some employers earlier would take pity on our plight and engage us in menial work because hoteliers and companies would reject hiring us for permanent jobs due to our Sri Lankan heritage. With heavy job losses, I wonder if it will be easy for us to get jobs later,” he says.

Another resident, A. Jayanthini, who has completed B.Sc. in Information Technology, says that most graduates at the Sri Lankan refugee camps work for daily wage. “It is sad to think that some people have MBA, MCA and B. Tech degrees and are painting and digging pits for laying electrical lines. Post COVID-19, most employees will face salary cuts and fewer days of work too. How do we brace for these times,” she asks. Besides, families which get a maximum of ₹2,000 as allowance from the State Government must manage with the amount for their daily expenses including the purchase of medicines and groceries.

Mr. Silandhiran says that since their worries for a post-COVID 19 time end up occupying their mind on a regular basis, most stick to watching the television as a means distract themselves.

Since houses are located very close to each other, afternoon matinee shows playing on popular channels blare from all houses. “It feels like collectively watching cinema in different houses,” he says. Some others engage their children and youngsters make TikTok videos, he adds as it an escape.

To ease their burden, it would be useful if the helpful non-governmental organisation donate free rations, vegetables and fruits, he says. “We require all the charity we can get,” he adds.

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Printable version | Jun 6, 2020 7:47:06 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/sri-lankan-refugee-camp-in-madurai-becomes-a-containment-zone/article31463349.ece

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