Critics of the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019 ask why Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka will not be given citizenship under the new law. The government’s response to this has not been convincing. Both critics and the government seem to have glossed over the long history of voluntary repatriation.
Influx of refugees
From the time Tamil Nadu began witnessing an influx of refugees from August 1983 following Black July in Sri Lanka, the Indian government has maintained that these refugees should go back on their own. In other words, India has been following the principle of non-refoulement and favouring voluntary repatriation.
In October 1983, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi publicly asserted that the country “cannot and will not take millions of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka”. While making this observation, perhaps she had in mind the problems posed by the migration of refugees from Bangladesh (East Pakistan) to India in the early 1970s.
But despite her statement, India received thousands of refugees from Sri Lanka over the years. At one point, Tamil Nadu had 2 lakh refugees. Between 1983 and 2013, around 3.04 lakh persons came to the State. At the moment, there are 59,714 refugees living in 107 camps and 34,355 persons outside the camps. Since the end of the civil war in May 2009, nearly 14,000 refugees have returned home.
In May 1984, responding to a point raised by MP Jayalalithaa during a debate in the Rajya Sabha, External Affairs Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao emphasised that the refugees “belong to Sri Lanka and they have to go back to Sri Lanka. They may remain here as long as it is needed.”
Nature of repatriation
In the early 1990s, especially after the assassination of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991, a controversy erupted over reports of sections of refugees being sent back “forcibly”. Consequently, the Indian government and Prime Minister Rao agreed to allow representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to screen refugees to ascertain the voluntary nature of the repatriation. Broadly, there has been no change in this position. The UNHCR is also involved in counselling the refugees, helping them obtain necessary documents, paying for their international travel and providing reintegration grants and post-return support.
On its part, the Indian government has been taking steps in its own way to facilitate voluntary repatriation. While visa fee is waived and overstay penalty is granted to non-camp refugees on a case-to-case basis, camp refugees are given this benefit as a matter of routine.
Also, New Delhi is conscious of the adverse demographic impact that the civil war has had on the Tamils of Sri Lanka. The numerical strength of MPs from Tamil-speaking areas has gone down over the years as Sri Lanka follows proportional representation. If the refugees go back, this will help Tamils get more representatives in the Sri Lankan Parliament.
The Indo-Sri Lankan Accord
There is one more reason why the refugees could not have been included in the scope of the Act. The 1987 Indo-Sri Lankan Accord talks of repatriation, though much water has flown under the bridge since then.
The 2011 report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, set up by the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime in May 2010, not only called for voluntary repatriation but also stressed the need for creating a conducive environment for the refugees to return to and for initiating a formal bilateral consultation process.
With the Rajapaksas back in power and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa being receptive to the idea of refugees returning to Sri Lanka, India should resume negotiations with Sri Lanka to give a push to the process of voluntary repatriation. But first Colombo should create conditions that will ensure the safety and security of the refugees returning to their homeland.