Sri Lankan Tamil refugees continue to demand Indian citizenship

When hundreds of Tamil men, women and children had participated in the Sri Lankan civil war during its peak in the 1990s, 14-year-old Shivakumar was also supposed to join the war with his friends and classmates.

However, when his father had come to know about Shivakumar’s plans, he had brought his family to India. They have stayed here since then.

Over 30 years have gone by but Shivakumar gets tears in his eyes every time he speaks about his homeland, Sri Lanka. “I want to go back home, so many men and women have lost their lives for winning our rights in our homeland. There is blood on that land, but I want to go back to respect the lost lives,” said Shivakumar, who is now 42 years old.

Ravindran and his wife Jayanthini came to India in 2007 in a boat. “We had only one choice, either to stay there and die, or come here. For the future of our children, we decided to leave everything behind and come here,” said Ravindran. It is never easy to survive during a war, he said, adding that he had lost count of how many people he knew had died in the war. Meanwhile, Jayanthini still has family back in Sri Lanka. She yearns for a day when she would unite with her kin.

At the Gummdipoondi refuge camp in Tamil Nadu where these refugees stay in, there are around 920 families consisting of over 3000 people. On the journey into the refugee camp, one can see closely located thatched houses and open sewage. The common restrooms, which were built earlier, are no longer usable with doors broken and wild shrubs growing inside them.

“We make the best use of what we get,” said Ravindran while leading us to his home.

© Provided by India Today At the Gummdipoondi refuge camp in Tamil Nadu. (Photo: India Today)

After coming from Sri Lanka, Ravindran started working in odd jobs. He had been working as a tractor driver recently. He was arrested by the police for transporting sand. “We don’t know the laws of the land here. I was arrested and went to jail for 19 days. The owner of the firm faced no issue. Now I have lost my job and for the last two months, I have not got any cash assistance that is generally given to refugees. My lawyer said that my going to jail should not stop them from giving me the assistance amount, but the officials here have denied me money,” said Ravindran. He and his family have been struggling to make their ends meet.

ALSO READ: Sri Lankan MP urges India to give citizenship to Tamil refugees

52-year-old Sumathi was just 20 years old when she carried her one-month-old girl and embarked on her journey out of Sri Lanka. She said it was a challenging journey, but there was no other option in front of them. Her entire family, including her parents, siblings and their spouses, had decided to leave all their belongings and start afresh in India. Sumathi said she had no desire to return to Sri Lanka now.

She said, “I have three children, a boy and two girls. The eldest has got married to a Tamil boy here. So we want to just live here in this country.”

She, like many others in the camp, desires for citizenship. After spending 30 to 40 years in India as refugees, many have no idea what is left for them back in their homeland.

© Provided by India Today Photo: India Today/Akshaya Nath.

The tag of being refugees has denied these people many opportunities, said the residents at the Gummdipoondi refuge camp.

“In the refugee camp there are many people who have studied IT and all, but we have not been able to get good opportunities. We don’t have identity proof and this has put us in a spot where we don’t get loans from banks and good companies don’t give us work. People like me have lost a lot of opportunities. I am an artist and I make signboards, but I have lost many orders because I still haven’t got a GST number. Though we have the talent, we are put at a disadvantage because of our identity as refugees,” said Shivakumar.

Recently the Tamil Nadu government had said that they would call refugee camps as rehabilitation camps, but this “will not make any real change for us”, said Shivakumar. “The real issues we face on ground should be addressed. The move of the CM is appreciated but that is not enough,” he added.

ALSO READ: Lankan Tamil refugees in Tamil Nadu: The nowhere people

The younger generation also fears about their future due to the refugee tag attached to them. Kayalvizhi, 16, has opted for Biology and Maths in class 11. She wants to be a doctor, but the opportunity for the same is very slim, she said. “There are many people from this camp who want to become doctors but unfortunately we don’t get medical seats,” said Kayalvizhi.

In 2014, a Sri Lankan refugee student had scored 1170 out of 1200 and had got 197.5 for medical cutoff, but she was still denied a seat. There was a PIL filed seeking her admission.

The community at large is denied opportunities, said members of the camp. Shivakumar, said, “We are denied chances to study MBBS and law. MBBS is difficult to get admission to for the people of this country itself, so you can imagine our plight. During the AIADMK regime, a Sri Lankan refugee girl had filed a case for MBBS seat. In the previous DMK government two or three seats were given but that again was lost in the following AIADMK government. Again, admission to law colleges has never been available to us. There is a fear that we will start asking questions. They want us to remain as an oppressed community.”

© Provided by India Today Photo: India Today/Akshaya Nath/

During a visit to Trichy in Tamil Nadu, Sri Lankan Tamil MP VS Radhakrishnan urged the Tamil Nadu and Indian governments to take steps to give citizenship to Sri Lankan refugees in the state. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin had also spoken about the SL refugees issue in the assembly and stated that the CAA, 2019, was denying the right for citizenship to Sri Lankan refugees.

According to reports, there are 94,069 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in India, with many of them living in 107 camps across Tamil Nadu. The Ministry of Home Affairs, in a report, had stated that over 3 lakh refugees came to India between 1983 and 2012 during the civil war. Till 1995, 99,469 were repatriated to Sri Lanka after which there has been no organised repatriation.

The current situation puts these refugees in a situation where they can’t vote or hold any properties in India. For close to 30 to 40 years these refugees are stuck in life with no progress or clue on when they will be accepted either in this country or their motherland.

Ravindran asked, “If the Central government is giving us citizenship we can stay here otherwise the state should make arrangements to send us. What is the point of living without citizenship? What is the point of living a life of a refugee till the end?”

ALSO READ: CM Stalin announces Rs 317-crore welfare package for Sri Lankan Tamil refugees

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