The concept of voluntary repatriation is the most preferred one by host nations, but it is also made sure that the consent for repatriation is not taken involuntarily. For Sri Lankan Tamil refugees, however, the most durable solution would be local integration.
THE United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in India is coy at its best and devious at its worst.
In a piece in The Hindu on February 16, Oscar Mundia, the Head of Mission, UNHCR in India hides more than he reveals as to its actual position relating to the long-term resettlement of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in India. Apart from wrong usage (or perhaps a Freudian slip) of the English language in describing young Sri Lanka Tamil refugees born and brought up in India as “cohorts”, he seems to infer that the refugees themselves seem to be undecided and, contrary to international refugee law, that the refugees could be sent back to Sri Lanka against their expressed wishes. He also makes a faux pas by referring to the Hill Country repatriates, who are not part of the UNHCR’s remit.
The UNHCR has been aiding and abetting the Indian and Sri Lankan governments’ efforts to send Sri Lankan Tamil refugees back to Sri Lanka, with a campaign of disinformation, enticement and skulduggery. The Sri Lankan government has been keen to show that all is normal in the north and east in Sri Lanka. This Head of Mission article, probably written by Geneva, is the latest in this series.
Also read: A Human Rights Concern: Shrinking Minority Rights in Sri Lanka
UNHCR provides no help to Tamil refugees in India
It should be noted that the UNHCR does nothing for the recognition, care and upkeep of Tamil refugees. They are looked after by the Government of Tamil Nadu, with a small grant from the Union government. In an answer to an unstarred question in the Lok Sabha on March 22, 2022, the Union government mentioned that it had allocated Rs. 80 crore for the year 2021–22 for the welfare of Tamil migrants from Sri Lanka, of which Rs. 74.82 crore has been released to the State Government of Tamil Nadu.
The UNHCR has been aiding and abetting the Indian and Sri Lankan governments’ efforts to send Sri Lankan Tamil refugees back to Sri Lanka, with a campaign of disinformation, enticement and skulduggery. The Sri Lankan government has been keen to show that all is normal in the north and east in Sri Lanka.
On August 27, 2021, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin announced schemes worth Rs 317.4 crore for the welfare of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees. Stalin said that his government would construct 7,469 houses for the refugees living in various camps across the state. The expenditure incurred on this scheme would be Rs. 231.54 crore. For their rehabilitation, the state government has issued orders for the supply of rice at a subsidised rate of Rs. 0.57 paise per kg to the refugees.
UNHCR injects itself into the Sri Lankan refugee issue
The UNHCR office in Chennai, since its inception, has not been able to provide any credible information to the refugees about the situation in Sri Lanka. In most cases, it was only able to meet refugees on the wharf on the point of embarkation for those persuaded to return by a non-government organisation which enjoyed not only its patronage, but also that of the Sri Lankan government and Indian spook agencies.
In April 2022, while visiting Chennai, the UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Gillian Triggs, as per a UNHCR press release, “reiterated the urgent need to continue working towards sustainable solutions, including the voluntary, safe and dignified returns of Sri Lankan refugees to their country. During her visit to Chennai, she met with the officials of the Government of Tamil Nadu and the Sri Lanka High Commission. …Triggs expressed her deep appreciation for India’s decades-long efforts to support Sri Lankan refugees. Many have had protection in India for more than thirty years and nearly half of the refugees were born in the country. While continuing to work towards voluntary repatriation, the Assistant High Commissioner was encouraged to hear of the consideration by key stakeholders to pursue a pathway to citizenship for those refugees who wish to remain in India.
A major problem the refugees were faced with earlier while determining whether to repatriate or not is that they are not presented with adequate information or are presented with misinformation concerning the conditions within Sri Lanka.
She was accompanied by Indrika Ratwatte, Director of the Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific at UNHCR headquarters. Coincidentally, Ratwatte is from a well-connected, Sinhalese elite family in Sri Lanka.
The Indian government, with its limited understanding of all things in Sri Lanka, as early as March 1992, passed an order to “persuade and advise Sri Lankan Tamil refugees to repatriate“. By May of 1993, the Indian government had placed considerable restrictions on Sri Lankan Tamil refugees, and on their campsite operations and privileges. As a result, the conditions of the camps became unbearable. Throughout 1993, many refugees allegedly repatriated voluntarily.
The key issue is the degree of this alleged voluntariness.
The reason why the decision of the refugees who opted to return cannot be termed as purely ‘voluntary’ is that very many of them may have opted for repatriation due to the withdrawal of facilities that had been provided to them before the so-called repatriation process commenced.
A major problem the refugees were faced with earlier while determining whether to repatriate or not is that they are not presented with adequate information or are presented with misinformation concerning the conditions within Sri Lanka. Adequate mechanisms for the dissemination of accurate information on the situation within Sri Lanka are not in place within the camps. Additionally, the Tamil Nadu office of the UNHCR has been frequently criticised for giving refugees the wrong impression about the status of the earlier war, and their ability to aid and protect the refugees once they reach Sri Lanka.
Mundia then lauds the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, forgetting to mention that the reports of this Commission were not implemented.
To add salt to the injury, Mundia then goes gaga about how munificent the Sri Lankan government has been in northern and eastern Sri Lanka since the end of the war in 2000. Fiddlesticks. He needs to read my piece on this subject published on this platform earlier this month.
Also read: Breakdown of Constitutional governance in Sri Lanka – What is the way ahead?
Mundia’s write-up conveniently forgets to mention that on January 4 and 9, 2018, a team of officers from the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs went to Tamil Nadu with the purpose of interacting with Sri Lankan refugees. According to the inspection of refugee camps done by the central team, there were “107 camps in 25 districts”. Above 90 per cent of the refugees expressed their intention to stay back in India because they had been living in India since 1990 and had been educated in India; some were concerned about the events that were still going on in Sri Lanka and felt unsafe to return to Sri Lanka.
The Tamil Nadu Government has been providing basic amenities for the welfare of the Tamil refugees living in camps. On the other hand, the Government of India has refused to give refugee status, permanent resident status or citizenship to Sri Lankan Tamil refugees and to their children who were born in India.
The Tamil Nadu government has been providing basic amenities for the welfare of the Tamil refugees living in camps. On the other hand, the Government of India has refused to give refugee status, permanent resident status or citizenship to Sri Lankan Tamil refugees and to their children who were born in India. Sushma Swaraj, then Minister for External Affairs, in a reply to a question in the Rajya Sabha on passports to Tamils from Sri Lanka, mentioned that passports are given only to citizens of India, and Tamils from Sri Lanka who have been living in India for a very long period and fulfil the criteria required to obtain passport, can apply for passports under the Passports Act, 1967.
For Sri Lankan Tamils who speak the local language, Tamil, and hold basic educational qualifications, the only barrier against their integration is the Indian Government’s restrictive policies. As soon as they enter the country, they are registered with the local intelligence, the notorious Q Branch of the Tamil Nadu police, and then forced to live in refugee camps which are congested, and lack basic facilities such as toilets, electricity, water and institutions for education.
Their uncertain status acts as an obstacle in their freedom and towards their prospects in life. It is difficult for them to live in camps as their families have expanded, but their living conditions in the camps still remain the same.
Sri Lankan Tamil refugees are reluctant to return to Sri Lanka. Some explain that there they have no houses or livelihood; they will have to go back to an uncertain future empty-handed. In India, they have jobs; they have earned their livelihood. The civil war has destroyed sources of basic amenities there. The younger generation is also worried about its future in Sri Lanka, since their India-based education is not accepted in Sri Lanka. The lack of linguistic knowledge in Sinhalese has created a distant relationship of younger refugees with Sri Lanka.
Almost 60 per cent of the refugees have been born in India. Those who were born in India between 1987 and 2004 can be given Indian citizenship. It is important to note that though the people who came to India because of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka have not been given refugee status, they are considered as illegal migrants because they did not come with their valid documents to India.
Why are Sri Lankan Tamils, who have been living in India, not included in the Citizenship Act when they have been in India for not just six or eleven but the past twenty years, and must have been naturalised earlier?
Several attempts have been made by the Tamil Nadu government to accord Sri Lankan refugees with citizenship and the entitlements attached to it. In 2009, the then Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi wrote to then Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, appealing for regularisation of the stay of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in Tamil Nadu. Then in 2015, Union Minister Kiren Rijiju said that the Government of India would consider the recommendation made by the Tamil Nadu government to grant Indian citizenship to Sri Lankan refugees. Also, former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi that “the time was not suitable to repatriate the Tamil Refugees….conditions in the northern and eastern provinces in Sri Lanka were not conducive for the Refugees to return.”
Also read: Madras High Court upholds citizenship rights of Sri Lankan refugees
Citizenship in India
A person may acquire Indian Citizenship by birth, by descent, by naturalisation, by marrying an Indian and by registration. Along with Part II of the Constitution of India, the Citizenship Act, 1955 is a comprehensive law dealing with citizenship in India.
The Citizenship Act prohibits illegal migrants from acquiring Indian citizenship and allows a person to apply for citizenship by naturalisation if they meet certain qualifications. One of these requirements is that the person must have resided in India or served the central government for a certain period of time: (i) for the 12 months immediately preceding the application for citizenship, or (ii) for 11 of the 14 years preceding the 12 month period.
On July 19, 2016, a bill was presented in Lok Sabha by the Government of India, known as the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016. The bill amended the Citizenship Act to fast-track citizenship for migrants who are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
Citizenship Amendment Act does not consider Tamil refugees
It intended to bring relaxation for the people of these six religions from the three countries in the requirement of 11 years to six years. The Act does not apply to minorities who do not belong to the above mentioned set, and excludes Sri Lankan Tamil Hindus, Muslims and Christians, who have faced a history of persecution.
In 1998, the issue of granting citizenship to Sri Lankan Tamil refugees came up before the Union Home Ministry, wherein it was decided that Sri Lankan Tamils who have come after 1983 would not be eligible for acquiring citizenship of India merely on the grounds of stay in India. In 2012, the same issue was again raised before Rajya Sabha Department-Related Parliamentary Standing Affairs Committee on Home Affairs: some members of the committee pointed out that well over a lakh Sri Lankan Tamils have been living in India for many years.
The question that arises now is why Sri Lankan Tamils, who have been living in India, are not included in the Citizenship Act when they have been in India for not just six or eleven but the past twenty years, and must have been naturalised earlier. Why is the Act specifically targeting three countries?
The core criterion for conferring citizenship to migrants from other countries is ‘religious persecution’ in India, and the Indian government has discriminated against the Sri Lankan Tamil Refugees who have taken refuge in India facing the same. India nonetheless does not provide Sri Lankan Tamils the opportunity to attain citizenship through naturalisation or through registration.
Also read: Ten reasons why the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 is unconstitutional
What is needed
Political bounteousness cannot be a passage which should be taken to solve the problems of refugees. The Indian government cannot let Sri Lankan Tamil refugees stay in camps forever. The exploitation faced by them each day has led them to turn to the unorganised labour force, locally known as ‘koolivelai’, that is, daily wage laborers.
The concept of voluntary repatriation is the most preferred one by host nations, but it is also made sure that the consent for repatriation is not taken involuntarily. For Sri Lankan Tamil refugees, however, the most durable solution would be local integration. Integration would thus emanate if “[r]efugees are able to participate in the host economy in ways commensurate with their skills and compatible with their cultural values; if the socio cultural changes that they undergo permits them to maintain their own identity”. Sri Lankan Tamils have been fully integrated in the society as there is a linguistic and ethnic affinity between them and the Indian Tamils.
A migrant is someone who is moving from place to place, usually for economic reasons and for seeking better opportunities, whereas refugees are people who flee their land due to the well-founded fear of being persecuted.
Providing them with Indian citizenship would be creating a safe, secure and stable environment for them, which India is obliged to do as a signatory to the International Bill of Human Rights.
Also, there are legal blunders with the recent amendments to the Citizenship Act as they fail to stand on the tenets of International refugee law. They do not differentiate between migrants and refugees. A migrant is someone who is moving from place to place, usually for economic reasons and for seeking better opportunities, whereas refugees are people who flee their land due to the well-founded fear of being persecuted.
It may be useful if the UNHCR did more for Rohingya and Somali refugees in India, whose living conditions are abominable, than extend its inefficient gaze to issues outside its ken.