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Sri Lankans face decision to go to a home they may not know

Tamil refugees hesitate over heading back home

Some are returning to Sri Lanka but many are still in camps in Tamil Nadu Some are returning to Sri Lanka but many are still in camps in Tamil Nadu
  • ucanews.com reporter, Colombo
  • Sri Lanka
  • October 25, 2012
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Geographically and culturally, Tamil Nadu is close to Sri Lanka. But for the more than 100,000 Sri Lankan refugees who have lived in this south Indian state for as long as 30 years, it simply isn’t home.

“It was a difficult decision in our lives but we left because we did not have any other choice, considering the heavy fighting in the country,” says Krishanthi Anthony. She left Sri Lanka with her family in 1992 when she was a young girl.

Like countless others, her family left in a hurry, ditching many of their possessions as they packed the rest into boxes before setting sail. They were charged 100,000 rupees (US$758) to make the journey, which took several hours across rough seas.

“We had to start a new life from the beginning. Whatever we earned was spent on eating and surviving in the camps,” she says.

Her mother sold her gold jewelry to pay for things like school fees. Even then they struggled to feed themselves.

Her younger sister and brother were both born in the camps where each family received 600 Indian rupees (US$11.20) per month. It did not cover a family's expenses; most sought work on the outside.

Now 30 years old, Krishanthi Anthony has made the long-awaited return. “With the war ending, relatives called us back and I came, but I still have fear,” she says. She is now back in her native Mannar in northeast Sri Lanka, scene of some of the war's heaviest fighting.

But only around 5,000 more Tamils have joined her.

Even though the journey is fully subsidized by the UN, even though it is now three years since the civil war ended, most of the refugees say they would rather wait before returning. They cite economic hardship and concern over human rights violations back home. Others say they cannot afford the process of setting up a home again.

There are other problems too. Many of the women who remain in the camps are war widows. Many, such as Krishanthi Anthony's siblings, were born in the camps so they know little or nothing about Sri Lanka.

But staying in the camps is not ideal either. S. Roshita Dias, a mother of three, says she is worried about her daughters who somehow have to raise money for their dowries.

“We live in ten-foot-wide rooms separated between families by sarees in a big hall with no privacy at all. This lifestyle leads to underage marriages and unwanted pregnancies,” she says.

Although it is up to the refugees themselves to decide when they plan to head home, India and Sri Lanka have also been looking for solutions at government level as rights groups have called on both to grant citizenship to Sri Lankan Tamils.

Officials in Colombo promise that these issues will be sorted out in due time. “The government plans to talk with the Indian government soon on this issue,” says Minister of Resettlement Gunaratne Weerakoon.

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