x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Sri Lankan Tamil refugees 'should be given Indian citizenship'

A politician in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu has requested the government provide citizenship to the estimated 100,000 Tamil refugees who fled Sri Lanka's civil war.Samanth Subramanian reports

NEW DELHI // A politician in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu has requested the government provide citizenship to the estimated 100,000 Tamil refugees who fled Sri Lanka's civil war.

While some Tamil activist groups welcomed the call, the organisation in India that represents Tamil refugees told The National yesterday that it was "not in favour of such a move".

The civil war began in 1983 and was fought between Sri Lanka's government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) guerrillas. The Tigers were agitating for an independent Eelam state for the island's Tamil minority. They were defeated in May 2009 but the conflict killed an estimated 40,000 Tamils, according to the United Nations.

Two-thirds of the Sri Lankan Tamils who sought refuge in Tamil Nadu still live in refugee camps. Only 11,532 refugees have chosen to go back to Sri Lanka since the war ended, according to figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

M Karunanidhi, the president of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party, Tamil Nadu's leading opposition party, said on Saturday that India should follow the lead of the United States in reforming its immigration system. If approved, the US reform legislation would give about 11 million illegal residents, including 260 ,000 Indians, the opportunity to become citizens.

Giving an Indian passport to the Sri Lankan refugees would, Mr Karunanidhi said, ensure their "permanent safety".

A statement by Tamils Against Genocide, a non-profit organisation that protested the civil war and supports Sri Lankan Tamils around the world, welcomed Mr Karunanidhi's demand.

"Providing de facto asylum without a path to naturalised Indian citizenship - all the while suspending civil and political rights like buying property, free movement, voting - is an injustice for the Tamil refugee populations which have been stateless in Tamil Nadu since the 1980s," the statement said.

But M Sakkariyas, the head of advocacy at the Chennai-based Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation (OFERR), said that neither he nor his colleagues advocated the granting of citizenship.

It was important, he said, for the refugees to go home. "Already we have lost a lot of parliamentary seats there, because the number of Tamil voters has gone down," he said. "If these 100,000 people go back, the Tamil community can regain some political power."

In 2009, as the war was drawing to its close, SC Chandrahasan, the Sri Lankan Tamil lawyer who founded OFERR, said that every refugee in India was eager to return home.

"Even refugee children who have been born in India, who don't even know the colour of the island, talk about going back," Mr Chandrahasan said then. "We're good dreamers."

But, since the end of the war, the refugees have been reluctant to go back to Sri Lanka - partly because they are unsure of the political climate that awaits them, and partly because some have built lives and careers in India.

V Suresh, the national general secretary of the People's Union for Civil Liberties, an Indian non-governmental organisation, said that there was "overwhelming evidence of the complicity of the Sri Lankan defence forces in war crimes against Tamils" towards the final stages of the war.

Reports that the Sri Lankan government continues to be hostile towards the Tamils have emerged steadily out of the island nation. Human rights bodies have complained about an overwhelming militarisation of Tamil-majority areas in Sri Lanka's north and east, of land being occupied by the army without compensation, and of a severe curtailment of civic rights.

This political instability, said Mr Sakkariyas, was one of the reasons that refugees were unwilling to return.

"Another reason is livelihood," he said. "Many of these refugees have been here for 20 or 30 years, and their land and houses back home will have been occupied by others. So they have nothing to go back to."

Refugees, however, have their camp housing, their meals and some modest means of earning a living, Mr Sakkariyas continued. "It's difficult to leave all that, but I'm sure if they were at least assured of housing upon their return to Sri Lanka, around 25 or 30 per cent would leave immediately."

For some of the younger refugees, India has become their home.

Robinson, who uses only one name, left Sri Lanka for India when he was four years old. For the next 20 years, he and his family lived in the Mottamalai refugee camp in the southern part of Tamil Nadu. His father died there in 2004.

Just over a year ago, Robinson returned to Sri Lanka along with his mother, his younger brother and his older sister, taking the ferry in to Colombo and travelling north by road to their hometown of Mannar.

They were among the fortunate ones, because they had family to return to. But Robinson, who had been a computer science instructor in Chennai, has mixed feelings about the move.

"It is good to be back in your own country, of course," he said. "But my friends were all in India, and it was difficult to leave."

There was little work for him in Mannar, Mr Robinson said, and he had not entirely ruled out trying to come back to India. "It would be nice. Let's see."

ssubramanian@thenational.ae

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