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Tamil refugees in India deserve a return to dignity

More must be done for these people left with nothing

Louie Albert SJ, Chennai

Louie Albert SJ, Chennai

Published: June 25, 2013 05:20 AM GMT

Updated: June 24, 2013 10:12 PM GMT

Tamil refugees in India deserve a return to dignity

Tamil refugees in Tamil Nadu state

Three decades of civil war in Sri Lanka not only displaced a sizeable number of local Tamils, it also drove thousands to seek refuge in Tamil Nadu state, in southern India, where many still live in camps set up by the state government.

More than 67,000 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees live in 122 refugee camps in the state. At least 50,500 arrived between 1990 and 2000, while another 23,000 fled to India after a ceasefire agreement broke down between Colombo and Tamil rebels in 2006.

Though the conflict ended four years ago with the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam, who sought a separate homeland for Tamils within Sri Lanka, the promise of resettlement and rehabilitation has not been carried out satisfactorily.

Different factions of the Sri Lankan army have appropriated the land, which belonged to ordinary people including the refugees in India. These refugees have now lost everything in Sri Lanka; there is nothing for them to go back to.

Friends and relatives still living in Sri Lanka discourage their return as the presence of the army generates fear and insecurity, and minorities are treated as second-class citizens.                

The refugees’ prolonged stay in the camps have created untold miseries and social ills such as early marriage, divorce, elopement, gender-based violence, harassment, suicidal tendencies, frustration, alcohol and substance abuse, family breakdowns and separations.

 Such problems have an irreversible effect on them. Long cherished cultural traditions are gradually destroyed due to the camp environment. Women and children are usually at the receiving end.

The younger generation, who have no memories of Sri Lanka nor the desire to go there, take the risk of trying to flee to Australia and other places in search of citizenship.

Even though some students are well qualified in different fields, they cannot get government jobs due to their refugee status. Some qualified students who get through interviews in IT firms are later denied a job when bosses learn that they are refugees.

The refugee community has been in India for more than two decades. As such, they are entitled to receive citizenship but the government has not made any effort in this regard.

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Extreme frustration with camp life prompts many refugees to risk their lives by trying to migrate illegally in another country.

Australia seems to be the destination of choice. Many try to get there despite advice given by the Indian government warning them not to fall victim to human traffickers.

Church people working on the ground have taken a firm stand on matters of social justice. They have openly and roundly criticized the authorities, officials and organizations that have shown little concern for human rights violations and discrimination.

But the Church still needs to do more in terms of ensuring human dignity and human rights. With its influence and moral authority it could do more than what it has done so far. The Church as a social body is expected to move beyond prayers and petitions.

I am not belittling or undermining the power of prayer. But along with prayer, we need to give assurance of support for refugees.

Educational institutions run by Catholic and Christian groups can help refugee students with regard to admission, fee concessions, job opportunities and skills development.

Internationally the Church can champion the cause of refugees, post war resettlement, returning the land to their rightful owners and the process of reconciliation.

Jesuit Father Louie Albert is the director of Jesuit Refugee Service in Tamil Nadu and works closely with Tamil refugees in the state.




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