A recent order of the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court, directing 65 refugees from Sri Lanka to apply for Indian citizenship, has again brought into sharp focus the need for the two countries to resolve a long-pending problem.
The problem concerns the future of about 95,000 refugees in Tamil Nadu who fled Sri Lanka between 1983 and 2012. Of them, around 60,000 are housed in 107 State government-run camps with substantial financial assistance from the Centre. The rest are called non-camp refugees. They live on their own and are required to report to the local officials at periodical intervals. Tamil Nadu provides accommodation to the largest number of refugees among States.
Sixty-five ‘stateless persons’
The case before the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court concerned 65 “stateless persons” who arrived in Tamil Nadu in 1983-85 following the anti-Tamil pogrom of July 1983 and were mostly put up at a refugee camp in Tiruchi. Their ancestors were indentured labourers who were taken to Sri Lanka during the British Raj to work in tea plantations. Their main demand was that they should be regarded on a par with repatriates covered under the bilateral agreements of 1964 and 1974. They did not want to be mixed up with the Tamil refugees from the Northern and Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka.
However, the Union and State governments labelled them as “illegal migrants” as they had entered India without valid documents. The Centre said that the petitioners could not demand citizenship as a right even if they fulfilled the eligibility criteria. The authorities, however, assured the refugees in the early 1990s that they would not be forcibly deported.
While conceding that granting citizenship was within the “exclusive executive domain” of the Centre, the High Court asked the petitioners to apply for Indian citizenship. This should be considered a moral victory for the petitioners as the judiciary has agreed, in principle, with their contention.
The court ruling has created an opportunity for the Centre to resolve the problem once and for all. And the problem is not just about granting or refusing citizenship; it is also about the absence of a comprehensive migration or refugee policy in India. There are over 2.25 lakh refugees in the country, including around 1.08 lakh Tibetans and 18,000 Rohingya. The absence of a policy along with other factors has contributed to the slow pace at which voluntary repatriation of refugees from Sri Lanka is taking place, though 10 years have lapsed since the end of the civil war in the island nation.
Issues faced by refugees
According to one estimate, 60% of the people in the camp, including 90% of the minors, were born in Tamil Nadu. Even though there are a number of opportunities for young refugees to pursue higher studies, barring medicine, qualified persons have not been able to get regular employment as major companies are reluctant to hire refugees. To seek employment in other countries, these refugees require Sri Lankan passports, which they can secure only in that country. In view of the perception of this process being laborious, some refugees have attempted to leave Tamil Nadu illegally. Such attempts have invariably failed.
Apart from this, there are some other issues that haunt the young refugees. To which country do they belong: India or Sri Lanka? If the country where they were born, raised, educated and married is not theirs, then where is home? Should a country about which they have only heard from their parents be considered their country of origin even though it may appear to be alien?
The case of the refugees from Sri Lanka is unique vis-a-vis other South Asian countries as they are excluded from the ambit of a Bill tabled in Parliament early this year to amend the Citizenship Act of 1955. Only non-Muslims from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan were covered in the Bill. The Citizenship Amendment Bill lapsed, but the government is firm that it will enact it.
Going back to Sri Lanka
Not every refugee living in Tamil Nadu is keen on acquiring Indian citizenship, however. Many want to go back. Some have decided to go back, even though the Sri Lankan economy, the lack of livelihood opportunities there, and access to quality education are genuine concerns for them. The Easter Sunday blasts this year temporarily halted the incremental repatriation, which resumed last month. The silver lining for the refugees is that the North, especially Jaffna, and hill country areas dominated by the Tamils are relatively safe, which encourages them to go back. As many as 7,818 refugees went back to Sri Lanka in 2011-18, according to a document of the Sri Lankan government. According to an official of the Tamil Nadu government, 367 returned this year.
A study by the Chennai-based Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation reveals that approximately 28,500 refugees, all living in camps, are “stateless persons” and entitled to get Sri Lankan citizenship in the light of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2003, and the Citizenship Amendment Rules of 2009.
There are also political compulsions for the refugees to return. The prolonged civil war and its adverse demographic impact on Tamils has had a direct bearing on the numerical strength of elected representatives of Tamils in Sri Lanka’s Parliament (Sri Lanka follows a system of proportional representation). The Tamil National Alliance and Indian government should discuss the refugee problem.
Sri Lanka has said that it favours the return of the refugees. But mere statement of intent is not sufficient. It has to be followed up with action — the authorities in the Northern and Eastern Provinces should ensure that there are no illegal occupants of lands belonging to the refugees.
The governments of the two countries, aided by officials in Tamil Nadu and the Northern and Eastern Provinces, should plan ways of speeding up voluntary repatriation. This should include a package of assistance.
India and Sri Lanka should begin the spadework now so that the stage is set for the repatriation of willing refugees in a big way when Sri Lanka elects its President later this year. The two countries should keep in mind that the refugee issue has to be handled in a humane manner. There should not be any scope for the use of force.