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Safety becomes a major issue for first time to Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in Tamil Nadu

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By Dilrukshi Handunnetti

For 25 years, Sri Lankan Tamil refugees have been reaching the shores of Tamil Nadu, the Indian state closest to Sri Lanka, for their safety.

Sri Lankan refugees prepare to disembark earlier from the ferry that brought them from India to Colombo-Oct 2011

It is in these camps and in small settlements in rural Tamil Nadu that they found safety and shelter for years. It is also in these camps that another generation was born and nurtured.

But recent developments indicate that the safety of the refugees is in question, following the rape of a six-year- old girl within the confines of a camp in Tamil Nadu and the growing use of the South Indian States as convenient transits in human smuggling rackets with Sri Lankans suspected of playing a key role.

Their true home

Whatever that went missing inside the refugee camps in terms of comfort and facilities, there was a sense of safety for the settlers. But recent incidents have altered this sense of safety, according to Sri Lankan refugees, who spoke to Ceylon Today on the basis of anonymity.

Besides fearing for safety, they also fear that some Sri Lankans may be involved in illegal activities such as maintaining links with militant groups or aiding human smuggling, which will in turn, render their lives more difficult than what they already are.

The rape and murder of a six-year- old girl inside a Sri Lankan refugee settlement in Mettipatti, Tamil Nadu, is now causing serious concern about camp safety and above that, the effectiveness of the law enforcement authorities.

In truth, the refugees live like second class citizens, leading a hand-to-mouth existence. The government assistance on offer though the refugees are glad to receive, is woefully inadequate to meet their basic needs.

Yet, having reached Tamil Nadu in four waves as a result of Sri Lanka’s ethnic strife, these refugees enjoyed a sense of security that made them consider Tamil Nadu, or India for that matter, not as a second home, but home itself. The refugees also raised a second generation within these camps, and they grew up considering India their home. Many a youthful refugee has shunned voluntary repatriation, despite the end of the war in 2009.

But things changed in mid 2012, not just with the murder of the girl inside a camp but also with the growing human smuggling activities associated with Sri Lankans living in India illegally.

The first serious in 20 years

According to Indian police authorities, tight security remains to be enforced in the Mettipatti camp area following the rape and murder of six-year-old girl Sirija, also known as Srinidhi.

The police investigations have led to the conclusion that the girl was raped before being killed and her body being dumped near a cement pipe under the culvert on Tiruchi Road, one kilometer away from the camp. The body had marks on the arms, and the throat was slit.

The camp settlement remains in shock following the gruesome murder of a girl well-loved by others. It is, according to the police, the first time such an incident occurred within the camp confines in its 20-year-long history.

Most refugees being daily wage earners, the tendency is to visit the nearby market in Valayapatti, five-kilometer journey often in groups. The police suspects that the rape and murder would have taken place at that time when the adult population was largely away from the camp making weekly purchases at the regular marketplace.

Human smuggling

Just a couple of weeks before the murder of the girl, Chennai Police on 3 July nabbed two Sri Lankan Tamils for collecting money from refugees within camps to assist their illegal migration to Australia.

The two men named Ramesh alias Ramachandran (38) and Gandhi Mohan (40) from Red Hills were originally from Trincomalee and had plans to leave for the now infamous Christmas Island, Australia by ferry from Yanam in Andhra Pradesh.

Speaking to Ceylon Today, Chennai Police said the two Sri Lankans could be part of a massive human smuggling racket offering ferry rides to Australia. According to a senior police officer, Sri Lanka was fast becoming the launch pad of human smuggling, specially to Australia and Italy. “We are studying the possibility of Kerala and Tamil Nadu being used as transit points,” he said.

Meanwhile, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa Jayaram has already accused Kerala and Andhra Pradesh authorities of keeping their eyes firmly shut while the two states were allegedly being used by Sri Lankans for human smuggling. She has also instructed Tamil Nadu Police to be extra vigilant as Sri Lanka’s human smuggling and illegal trafficking reached new heights.

Call to shut down detention camp

Just two months ago, several non-governmental organizations called for the shutting down of a detention camp in Chengalpattu in Tamil Nadu where some 28 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees are kept.

According to human rights organizations working at ground level, the camp has been in operation for while. Objections were raised against its existence by members of the Tamil Solidarity Campaign, Visual Search, Pedestrian Pictures, New Socialist Alternative (CWI-India) and others.

The argument put forward by the NGOs is that some of these refugees had reached Tamil Nadu seeking asylum two decades ago and that cases have been registered against them for the same reason after May 2009, following the conclusion of Sri Lanka’s protracted war.

Tamil Nadu NGO sources claim that the Chengalpattu refugee camp functions neither as a prison, nor run as a refugee camp where individuals enjoy a wide spectrum of rights. Rather, it is clear that it is functioning as an illegal detention camp.

Some of the refugees were on a hunger strike last June demanding that they be transferred to an open camp. In the meantime, activists claim that the camp is being maintained to showcase the existence of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) after them being wiped out in May 2009.

India operated camps for Sri Lankan Tamil militants but following the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, all such camps were immediately closed.

According to a respected Indian defence analyst based in New Delhi, who maintains a keen eye on Sri Lanka, the situation relating to Sri Lankan refugees began changing in May.

“The situation in the camps also took a negative turn while the mass smuggling of persons in Sri Lanka is now having an impact in South India.

Multiple answers

The refugee camps were less than ideal, but the Indian State has always ensured the places were safe. There was also no room for illegal activity at the three types of settlements Sri Lankans have in Tamil Nadu,” he explained.

The first category of Sri Lankans is the camp refugees who find shelter in refugee camps located in rural Tamil Nadu. They generally enter India at Mandapam where a transit refugee camp exists and thereafter are sent to different locations by the Indian authorities.

The second group is the non-camp refugees living with relatives and friends and not qualifying for government assistance. The third group comprises persons with connections to subversive activities in Sri Lanka and, therefore, located at special camps. The special camps were set up in 1991 and these persons live under constant government surveillance.

According to him, the refugees’ freedom of movement came under further restriction following the murder of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by a Tamil Tiger suspect. Following the assassination, the refugee camps were moved away from coastal areas to interior as a security measure. The Tamil militants’ training camps maintained by the Indian State were immediately shut down.

Meanwhile, Indian authorities claim that they are unable to provide exact information about Sri Lankans reaching Tamil Nadu. “There is no official figure to share. Suffice to say that the numbers are growing”, the top source confirmed.

Sri Lankans first sought refuge in 1993 following the July riots. The wave continued until after the signing of the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord on 29 July 1987. Up to that point, a total of 134,053 Sri Lankans reached Tamil Nadu as refugees. Following the Peace Accord, as per Clause 2.16 (D), the Government of India undertook to expedite repatriation from Sri Lanka of Indian citizens to India who are resident there concurrently with the repatriation of Sri Lankan refugees from Tamil Nadu.

In August 1989, some 25,687 non-camp refugees returned home under the first repatriation scheme. But following the commencement of the war, Sri Lankans began reaching Tamil Nadu in their thousands since 1992. Though the trend ceased in 2002 with the signing of a ceasefire agreement between the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE and the introduction of a repatriation programme, Indian authorities claim that not just in the final months of the war in 2009 but at present too, Sri Lankans have begun to reach Tamil Nadu shores in large numbers.

The disturbing turn of events come at a time when Sri Lanka is going ahead with a UNHCR -assisted voluntary repatriation scheme. At present, Sri Lanka does not have an official repatriation service though the President of Sri Lanka Mahinda Rajapakse has openly invited all Sri Lankans living overseas including those living in the camps in Tamil Nadu to return to their motherland.

With a dramatic increase in human smuggling involving Sri Lankans and camp safety now under question, the plight of Sri Lankan refugees living in Tamil Nadu merits scrutiny. Having fled a violent home two decades ago, they now fear of being at the receiving end for the subversive activities of a fringe that provides leadership to human smuggling in Tamil Nadu.

Sri Lankan citizenship certificates for refugees

A special service has been launched by the Deputy High Commission of Sri Lanka in Chennai to provide citizenship certificates to Sri Lankans living in 112 refugee camps scattered in Tamil Nadu.

The citizenship certificate along with birth certificates, passports, and so forth, are expeditiously issued for those who wish to return without charging any statutory fee, according to a spokesperson from the DHC in Chennai.

There are hundreds of births yet to be registered under the Consular Functions Act of Sri Lanka and an equal number of citizenship certificates that are yet to be issued, according to the DHC. Returnees are also issued a special booklet to help facilitate the process of return.

Returnees’ statistics

In the first half of 2012, only 662 individuals voluntarily returned to Sri Lanka whereas in the first half of 2011, a total of 1,728 Sri Lankans opted to return home.

The majority of the returnees are from Indian government-run refugee camps in Tamil Nadu with a handful returning from Malaysia, Georgia and Hong Kong.

The refugees have been returning to Trincomalee, Mannar, Vauniya and Jaffna Districts with smaller numbers returning to Kilinochchi, Batticoloa, Colombo, Mullativu, Puttalam and Kandy.

According to UNHCR’s statistics, by the year end of 2011, there were some 68,152 Sri Lankan refugees living in 112 camps in Tamil Nadu and another 32,467 living outside the camps. Worldwide there are over 136,000 Sri Lankan refugees living in 65 countries.

“Up to this year, over 750 persons have returned to Sri Lanka through UNHCR. And there are over 100 applications which are being processed for August,” a UNHCR official said.

Over 1,670 refugees who were living in special camps across Tamil Nadu returned to Lanka last year, while 2,040 persons returned in 2010 through UNHCR.

The Sri Lankan refugees constitute 36.73% of the total number of refugees living in India. A total of 185,532 refugees live in India and the largest refugee community is from Tibet.

Decline in voluntary repatriation- UNHCR Colombo

The number of Sri Lankan refugees returning home with UNHCR assistance has declined during the first half of 2012, according to a UNHCR Representative in Sri Lanka, Michael Zwack.

“Compared with the same period in 2011, there is an apparent decline. “But it is difficult to assign reasons for the decline as it is an individual decision by each refugee based on individual considerations,” Zwack said.

No direct access- UNHCR New Delhi

“Incidents of rape, harassment or any other kind of violence against women are generally of great concern to UNHCR. As we do not have direct access to the refugees camps, reliable data on the prevalence or the frequency of such incidents is difficult to obtain.

“Our regular training and sensitization programmes with camp officials and authorities in Tamil Nadu include sessions on violence against women”, Nayana Bose, Associate External Relations Officer, UNHCR New Delhi told Ceylon Today.

India’s many refugee camps

The refugee camps for Sri Lankans were set up in 1983, following the July 1983 riots in Sri Lanka that caused thousands of Tamils to flee for safety. The closest point being Tamil Nadu, the fleeing thousands entered mostly from Rameswaram.

With the arrival of refugees in their thousands in the first flush of the July 1983 riots, the Indian State granted them entry on humanitarian grounds. Camps were set up under three categories- special camps for militants and those for camp refugees and non-camp refugees.

The Indian Government did not transfer the refugees from beyond Tamil Nadu given that both the State and the refugees spoke one language, Tamil. All camps are registered with defence and Tamil Nadu State authorities.

There are 132 camps located in Tamil Nadu and one in Orissa, according to Indian authorities. The refugees are entitled to government assistance including cash, shelter, clothing, health and essential provisions.

Serious restrictions on movement are placed on those living in camps and those within special camps are kept under serious surveillance. The Indian State’s management style of refugee camps has prevented refugee assistance from reaching these camps as well as the scrutiny of international human rights and refugee organizations. courtesy: Ceylon Today

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