Between Delhi and Madras

A comprehensive evaluation of India-Sri Lanka relations, particularly in the context of the ongoing peace talks between Colombo and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), would not be complete without taking into account the plight of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees residing in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. New Delhi's maladroit handling of Sri Lankan issues is mirrored in its approach to the displaced Tamils. Lacking a definite policy, South Block has deferred responsibility for the problem to the state government of Tamil Nadu.

For its part, Tamil Nadu's government is pinning its hopes on the ongoing peace talks between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. There were some discussions about the rehabilitation of displaced persons during the first two rounds in September and November 2002, but nothing definite was said about refugees living in India. Tamil Nadu expects that the concerned parties will arrive at an agreement soon, following which the refugees will be repatriated into north and east Sri Lanka. Clearly, it is not taking its cue from New Delhi's wishes.

While the governments flounder, the refugee problem looms large in Tamil Nadu. According to official figures released five years ago, there are three types of refugees living in the state: those lacking any resources, numbering about 67,485 and housed in 133 'ordinary' camps across the state; those living outside the camps, estimated at 25,000, many of whom are reasonably well off, stay with relatives or friends and are required to register their movements with police stations; and the 2000-odd militants detained in 'special' camps set up in 1990. Most refugees in the third category face prosecution under the Indian Foreigners Act, the Passport Act or various anti-terrorism laws.

But these official estimates, which place the refugee population at less than 100,000, may well be off the mark. Unofficial estimates of Sri Lankan refugees in Tamil Nadu put the number at 250,000. In addition to people displaced by ethnic strife, natural disasters and economic hardship, there are labourers, petty shopkeepers and countless others who have fled the southern island for better opportunities in India. Sri Lankan Tamil refugees are predominantly Hindus of the Dravidian linguistic group and are socially and culturally akin to the people living in the state.

Due to specificities of India-Sri Lanka relations, the refugees at one time enjoyed privileged status. They participated in local politics, built powerful lobbies and made use of temporary sanctuary to promote the cause of Eelam. However, after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, killed in 1991 by an LTTE suicide bomber, the refugees lost the support of the central and state governments. Today, the union government is indifferent to them while the Tamil Nadu government guards the camps with extreme suspicion.

A dolorous picture
There are claims and counter-claims about the condition of the refugees; a United Nations report says they are treated well, while an NGO working with them offers a distressing picture. According to the UN report, most refugees in the camps enjoy greater protection of human rights than the average poor Indian. Most refugees outside the camps are said to have been accommodated in the expanding economy, and others have migrated overseas for even greater opportunity. First-category camp children are allowed to attend colleges in the state. The UN report quotes an NGO called the Organisation for Ealam Refugee Rehabilitation (OFFER), which has launched several schemes for improving living conditions of Sri Lankan refugees.

However, other organisations such as Partners in Action for Refugees (PAR/NAC) are not as sanguine of the living conditions. PAR/NAC says that people detained in solitary confinement in the special camps are condemned to a dehumanising existence. Medical assistance is virtually nonexistent and food is nearly deleterious. Many continue to languish in these camps even after being exonerated by the courts. Children in the special camps are denied access to even basic education. Among the special camp detainees there is even the absurd presence of handicapped and disabled persons.

Ordinary camp children at least enjoy the privilege of attending school, although they are looked upon with suspicion by classmates. Many second category refugees fare poorly, in particular those living in the state's Ooty and Kodaikanal coffee plantation areas. These workers frequently suffer the brunt of maltreatment from police and plantation owners, and are deprived of access to legal redress. PAR/NAC says that refugees living in both the ordinary and special camps exist within an internal hierarchy that deprives those at the bottom of their fair share of benefits. Because PAR/NAC is forbidden from working in the camps, it says the most it can do often is to inform the press about abuses.

Even while the Sri Lankan government's talks with the Tigers continue, there is need for short- and long-term approaches to solve the problems of the Tamil refugees in Tamil Nadu. One initial step would be a fresh headcount in the camps. There is also a need for maintaining transparency in detentions and the trials of refugees. Health care and education need immediate attention and NGOs should be allowed greater access to the refugees. Special attention should be paid to the women, children and youth, who must be provided vocational training and technical skills.

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Himal Southasian