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Sri Lankan refugees in India face an uncertain future

A young girl in Kurunjipadi camp, Tamil Nadu. Through ECHO funds toilets and washing facilities were re-built in Cyclone affected camps. © EU 2012 - photo credits: EC/ECHO Arjun Claire

A young girl in Kurunjipadi camp, Tamil Nadu. Through ECHO funds toilets and washing facilities were re-built in Cyclone affected camps. © EU 2012 - photo credits: EC/ECHO Arjun Claire

19/06/2012 – Daisy’s (40) confident smile goes well with her colourful sari; beads of jasmine flowers tied to her braids exude a soothing fragrance that quickly dissipates in the oppressive mid-afternoon heat of Tamil Nadu.

But Daisy’s calm appearance shields the turmoil within her. Her husband, Christopher, whom she met in the refugee camp, wants to go back to Sri Lanka to see his dying mother, and settle there. But Daisy knows once they return, she may not see her mother again with whom she fled the war in Sri Lanka 15 years ago. Her mother will stay behind with her brother who is not keen on going back.

War split families in Sri Lanka, exile united others in India. The cycle which started with the war is coming to a full circle; migration has resumed, only the trend has reversed. Relationships and memories from lives lived in two countries clash making decisions to stay or leave difficult.

The first wave of refugees arrived in 1983 following the anti-Tamil pogroms that killed thousands. As the war gradually escalated, refugee waves followed the intensity of the war. Currently, over 68,000 Sri Lankans live in 111 camps spread across Tamil Nadu; some 32,000 live outside.

Starting a new life in Sri Lanka can be difficult. Christopher, who works as a freelance photographer, highlights the challenges of going back. “We don’t know what will happen there. When I was in Sri Lanka, there were only three photography studios in my town. Now there are many. I know there will be challenges but I still want to try”.

Refugee returns which increased after the end of the 26-year war between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers in May 2009, have stalled in recent months. Over 1,600 refugees returned to Sri Lanka in 2011; so far this year, there have been less than 500 returnees, according to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), which has a limited mandate in India – India is not a signatory to the UN refugee convention – restricted only to assisting refugees in the repatriation process.

“A feeling of insecurity, lack of livelihood and education opportunities in Sri Lanka are some of the reasons why the number of returnees have been less than expected”, says Jeroen Uttyerschaut, who heads the Sri Lanka office for the European Commission Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (ECHO), and recently visited the camps with ECHO India team, Samuel Marie-Fanon and Aftab Alam. ECHO funds relief assistance for displaced people within Sri Lanka and refugees living in camps in India.

The decision to stay or return rests entirely with the refugees. But choosing to return can be complicated; refugees have lived in camps for years, married and started families. They need marriage and birth certificates from the Indian government before they can apply for a travel document to Sri Lanka. Refugees struggle to access information on how to get these documents, and even if they do the administrative procedures are long and cost money to frequently travel to district and state capitals.

ECHO funds a consortium of NGOs – led by Christian Aid (implementing project through OfERR), ADRA and Danish Refugee Council – to set up centres in the camps to provide information to refugees about application procedures and documents required for the return process. They also help refugees get birth, marriage and death certificates from the Indian and Sri Lankan administration. Another important task for the centres is to create awareness among refugees of all the schemes extended to them by the Tamil Nadu government.

Life in the camps

Better than some other impoverished communities in India, the living conditions in the camps are by no means satisfactory. In camps half the size of a football field, many refugees live in small box-like structures – of cement, tin and palm fronds – wedged against each other.

“The living space is not enough for all of us. We have to cook and sleep here. It is very congested”, says Pushparani from Vembakkottai camp in Virudhunagar district.

In addition, employment opportunities for refugees are limited, alcohol addiction rampant.

“He drinks and breaks all the family utensils. When I refuse to give him money, he chases me and beats me before everyone”, says Nagalaxmi from Karaiyur camp in Sivagangai district. “Yesterday he broke the TV. I had sold my jewellery to buy the TV, but he broke it”.

ECHO-funded projects run a comprehensive programme to tackle these problems. Women receive psycho-social support and are encouraged to set up women inclusive networks to address common concerns like gender-based violence; alcohol addicts are referred to nearby de-addiction centres.

Efforts have also been made to reach out to corporate companies in Tamil Nadu encouraging them to provide skill-based training to refugees, in addition to identifying jobs which correspond to the existing skill-set in the camps. 

Preparing for life ahead

Back in the Karaiyur camp Daisy’s mother has come to visit her. The decision has been made; dates of return fixed; plane tickets from UNHCR in hand, Daisy, Christopher, and their two sons will leave India on the 30th September this year.

“We lived a fearless life here. My children could study”, says Daisy. “We earned enough money to get by”.

Since 2002, the European Commission Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (ECHO) has provided € 4.7 million to assist Sri Lankan refugees living in camps in India with nutrition, shelter, food assistance and water and sanitation services.

By Arjun Claire
Communication Assistant, ECHO New Delhi

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