Sri Lankan refugees | The long wait for Indian citizenship

Updated - January 13, 2024 10:57 am IST

Published - January 13, 2024 04:10 am IST

Sri Lankan refugees have been living in and outside refugee camps in Tamil Nadu for years. The Union government considers them illegal migrants and refuses to grant them citizenship. But thanks to judicial intervention, a few of them can finally be called Indian citizens, reports T. Ramakrishnan

T. Ganesan, who lives in a camp for refugees from Sri Lanka, in Irumboothipatty village in Karur district of Tamil Nadu, with his wife Mariamma. | Photo Credit: G. Moorthy

Ganesan, 69, who lives in a camp for refugees from Sri Lanka, in Irumboothipatty village in Karur district of Tamil Nadu, describes November 30, 2023, as a day of “rebirth”. It was on this day that the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court recognised him as an Indian. “I just couldn’t believe it,” he says, his subdued tone masking his joy. “I had been waiting for that moment for more than 30 years. It is as if I have got a second life.”


The Government of India considers all refugees in India “illegal migrants” and India does not have a law governing refugees. This means that Sri Lankan refugees, who came to India fearing violence and persecution during the civil war, which lasted from 1983 to 2009, are ineligible for Indian citizenship even if they have lived in India, like Ganesan has, for over 30 years. Camps in Tamil Nadu house 58,457 refugees (as on March 31, 2023). There are also 33,375 refugees living outside these camps.

Also read | 45% of Sri Lankan Tamils living in camps were born in India: Report

Though not Indian citizens, they are beneficiaries of several welfare measures. The Tamil Nadu government has been giving them monetary benefits that are higher than what is allowed by the Centre. The refugees are also covered under the public distribution system and their children are given educational assistance. The present Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government, which renamed the refugee camps as rehabilitation camps, has also undertaken a project to renovate them.


The Central government favours voluntary repatriation and follows the principle of non-refoulement — the practice of not forcing refugees or asylum seekers to return to a country in which they are liable to be persecuted. Refugees, like foreign nationals, are governed by the Foreigners Act, 1946; the Registration of Foreigners Act, 1939; the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920; and the Citizenship Act, 1955. Many Sri Lankan refugees are said to be eligible to acquire citizenship by naturalisation or registration. But a circular issued by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs to the Tamil Nadu government in 1986 advises the latter not to entertain applications from them for citizenship.

From pillar to post

Ganesan was identified for repatriation under the 1964 and 1974 bilateral treaties between India and Sri Lanka that covered Indian-Origin Tamils (IOT) or hill country Tamils. In these treaties, India promised Sri Lanka that it would grant citizenship to 6 lakh people from Sri Lanka, along with their natural progeny. As many as 4,61,639 IOTs were repatriated to India from Sri Lanka after being given citizenship by the Indian High Commission in Sri Lanka, according to the Central government in February 2020.

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Ganesan belongs to a section of Tamils in Sri Lanka who are descendants of workers who had migrated to the island country from Tamil Nadu in the 19th century and early 20th century. When Sri Lanka became independent, a large number of them were rendered stateless. Ganesan told the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court that he had submitted an application in 1970, but he was issued a passport only in August 1982 in Sri Lanka, while working in a tea plantation in the southern district of Matara. The passport, issued by the Assistant High Commissioner of Kandy to facilitate his travel to India, announced in bold letters that Ganesan was a “Citizen of India.”


However, while the repatriation process was in progress, Sri Lanka witnessed an anti-Tamil pogrom in July 1983, amidst the civil war. As soon as Ganesan received the passport, he and his family were internally displaced. In February 1990, they fled the country and arrived by boat in Rameswaram in the Ramanathapuram district of Tamil Nadu.  

As he came in a boat with about 60 others, all of whom, unlike him, were citizens of Sri Lanka, Ganesan’s identity got subsumed into the category of refugees, in Rameswaram. Though sympathetic to Ganesan, his wife, and three children, as they were with other refugees, the authorities in Rameswaram were unwilling to regard him as an Indian despite his passport.

On arrival in Rameswaram, all the refugees were given food and milk packets following a preliminary verification. They were asked to go to Madathukulam, which is now a part of Tiruppur district, in the western region of the State. “We were put up at a noon meal centre and a godown. There were about 50 families with less than 200 people. We were there for about 15-16 months. When (former Indian Prime Minister) Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in May 1991, we were all shifted to Mandapam (in Ramanathapuram district). Since 1996, I have been living in Irumboothipatty,” says Ganesan.


His son, Niranjan Prabhu, who works as a painter in Erode district, says his father sent petitions for citizenship to authorities at all levels, including the Prime Minister. “He would get a stock reply from the office of the District Collector, which was that the official did not have the power to give him citizenship. My father was undeterred and kept on pursuing the matter,” he says.

The Madras High Court’s ruling in P. Ulaganathan and others v. Government of India (2019) particularly motivated Ganesan. In that case, Justice G.R. Swaminathan directed Ulaganathan and 64 other petitioner-refugees from Sri Lanka, all from the Kottapattu camp in Tiruchi, to apply for Indian citizenship, even though he acknowledged that granting citizenship “falls within the exclusive executive domain” of the Centre. The petitioners of the case did not get any relief as the authorities rejected their applications.

Eventually, it was his passport that helped Ganesan obtain citizenship. The Central government accepted before the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court that his passport was genuine — an admission that brought tremendous relief to Ganesan and his family.


T. Ganesan and Mariamma. | Photo Credit: G. Moorthy

Ganesan has not yet decided to seek a fresh passport. Perhaps, he is sentimentally attached to the passport issued in Sri Lanka, the one that established his ‘Indianness’. As of now, he and his family are awaiting the next move of the authorities. The High Court has asked the Central and State governments to extend to them a rehabilitation package meant for repatriates from Sri Lanka which includes free housing sites, subject to the availability of government land.

‘I was born in India’

“I have always considered myself Indian as I was born in India,” says K. Nalini, 37, a mother of two. Nalini’s father hailed from Mannar in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka and her mother from Kurunegala in the Northwestern Province.

Editorial | Dual citizenship: On regularising stay of Sri Lankan refugees

When she saw scores of Tamil families being targeted in July 1983 across the island nation, Nalini’s mother, Santhi, who was not married then, fled to Tamil Nadu. Between 1983 and 1987, nearly 1.34 lakh people arrived in Tamil Nadu, fearing for their lives. When Santhi was accommodated in the Mandapam camp, she met Kannan and married him. Now, Santhi and Kannan live in a camp in Chinnasalem, Kallakurichi district.

Nalini was born in Mandapam in April 1986. Since her marriage in 2013 to Kirubakaran, who belongs to the community of hill country Tamils in Sri Lanka and arrived in Tamil Nadu in 1984, Nalini has been living in the Kottapattu camp. Kirubakaran drives an autorickshaw for a living.

K. Nalini lives in the Kottapattu camp in Tiruchi district. She holds the passport issued to her by the Regional Passport Officer, Tiruchi. | Photo Credit: G. Moorthy

When Nalini sought an Indian passport, the officials rejected her application on the grounds that her parents were Sri Lankan nationals, and that she was a resident of the Kottapattu camp. What they did not consider was that Indian citizenship is automatically given to all those who were born in India on or after January 26, 1950, the day the Constitution came into force, but before July 1, 1987, the date the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 1986, came into force. As Nalini was born in 1986, i.e., before July 1, 1987, she is an Indian citizen as per Section 3(1)(a) of the Act.

Finally, on September 29, 2022, Nalini won her case in the Madras High Court. In support of its stand, the Court cited the Delhi High Court’s decision in Namgyal Dolkar v. Government of India (2010) where the petitioner, who was born to Tibetan refugees in Kangra, Himachal Pradesh, was born eight days before Nalini.

Other factors too helped Nalini’s case. P. Chidambaram, as the Union Minister of State for Home Affairs, said during a debate in November 1986 in the Lok Sabha on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill that the proposed changes would not take retrospective effect. The proposed change was that those born after July 1, 1987, and before December 4, 2003, could get citizenship only if they were born in India and if either of their parents was an Indian citizen at the time of birth. The Delhi High Court quoted him as having said: “If we had made this Bill retrospective, then this would be a negation of human rights.” Besides, the Madras High Court had recorded that even the Regional Passport Officer (RPO) in Tiruchi, who Nalini had approached originally, conceded that she had not renounced Indian citizenship. The Court’s ruling has made Nalini happy for one more reason. “I have started harbouring the hope that the future of my two children, who were born after 2004, will be secure,” she says.

The importance of a cut-off date

It is the court again which came to Neyatitus’ rescue. Neyatitus, 21, falls under the category of Indians born on or after July 1, 1987, but before December 3, 2004, when another amendment to the Citizenship Act took effect. This stated that for a person to be considered Indian, in addition to being born in India on or after December 3, 2004, at least one of their parents should be an Indian citizen and neither parent should be an illegal migrant.

After completing a bachelor’s degree in commerce from a government college in Sivaganga in Tamil Nadu in 2022, Neyatitus wanted to go to Germany to work and applied for a passport for this purpose.

It was then that questions came up about his identity. Neyatitus had apparently mentioned in his application that he was a “Sri Lankan refugee.” No one questioned whether he was a refugee, but was he Sri Lankan? If yes, he was supposed to go for his passport to the Deputy High Commission (DHC) of Sri Lanka in Chennai.

But Neyatitus chose to approach the RPO in Madurai for an Indian passport as he was legally advised to do so. His mother, Patchaiammal (now called Mary Christina), is an Indian citizen and his father, Sahayanathan, is a Sri Lankan refugee. He was born in January 2002, almost three years before the 2004 cut-off date. It was his date of birth and the nationality of his mother that helped the High Court rule in his favour in April 2023. But his brother, Yovan Snapaha, who is pursuing an engineering course in Coimbatore, does not qualify to be an Indian citizen as he was born after December 3, 2004.

The DHC has decided to issue all-country passports to Sri Lankan refugees unlike earlier, when one-time passports would be given to them to enter Sri Lanka, from where they were expected to apply for new passports to go to any third country. The Mission, which has started receiving applications, is planning to hold a formal event soon to present such passports.

Both Nalini and Neyatitus proudly display their Indian passports today. But there are many like them in refugee camps and outside, waiting for the day when they will be accorded citizenship, too. According to the provisional figures of a survey carried out by an official panel of the Tamil Nadu government among camp refugees in the State, there are 148 people like Nalini, born in India before July 1, 1987, to parents of Sri Lankan nationality or mixed parentage; 566 persons like Neyatitus, born before December 3, 2004, to refugee-local couples in Tamil Nadu; and 35 persons like Snapaha, born after December 3, 2004, to refugee-local couples in Tamil Nadu.

Revisiting the matter

As all three of them are Indians now, “Ganesan, Nalini, and Neyatitus should not be living in refugee camps any more. But after having lived in them for so long, they require a rehabilitation scheme for smooth integration with the mainstream,” says Romeo Roy Alfred, the advocate for all the three successful “refugee-Indians.” The scheme comprises loans for establishing small business units, or for participating in self-employment schemes in dairy farming and the match industry, or for the provision of powered cycle-rickshaws. “More importantly, many were assigned small parcels of government lands, wherever available, for housing. I request the State government to ensure that Ganesan, Nalini, and Neyatitus are given the lands,” he adds.

Alfred says that there must be a comprehensive survey among the refugees about their ancestry, with a particular reference to IOTs or hill country Tamils. A significant number of persons born to IOT or hill country Tamils in India have not visited Sri Lanka and it is unlikely that they will ever go to island, he says. He suggests that the authorities could relax the stipulation regarding “illegal migrants” and provide citizenship for them. Besides, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, grants Indian citizenship to non-Muslims from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan who came to India on or before December 31, 2014, but leaves out refugees from Sri Lanka, many of whom came to the country decades ago. “This is why the Union government should revisit the matter.”

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