The Protracted Refugee Life of the Sri Lankan Tamils

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Winter Course on Forced Migration 2007, CRG

The Protracted Refugee Life of the Sri Lankan Tamils


Gladston Xavier

The Sri Lankan Refugees have lived in India since 1984. Currently there are about 80,000 refugees living in 117 camps spread all over Tamil Nadu State in south of India. In addition to this there are an estimated 100,000 refugees who live outside the camps staying in private homes registered with the local police station. During their time in India the Indian government has provided them with basic housing facility, cash doles and subsidized rations to meet their daily needs. This essay examines the current issues of the Sri Lankan refugees living in the camps in Tamil Nadu.

Definition of a Refugee

According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, “A Refugee is a person who, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality.", Since India is not a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Convention for refugees, the refugees in India do not come under this category. In the absence of any domestic law in India the refugees are treated under the Indian Passport Act of 1967 And the Foreigners Act of 1946. For many south Asian countries India is a refugee host nation. People from Tibet, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka come to India as refugees to find a safe haven. Refugees from Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Armenia and other countries also make their way to India seeking safety.

Refugee Policy and Refugees in India

Due to the lack of any National Policy on refugees India adapts a preferential treatment of the refugees. This treatment is based on the international lobby and local vote bank politics. The UNHCR is given specific mandates to take limited care of the Chin refugees from Burma, the Afghan Refugees and a few other refugee groups. The Tibetan and the Sri Lankan Refugees in particular have received notable treatment from the Indian government as compared to the Chakmas from Bangladesh or the Chins from Myanmar. This is has been primarily because of a strong international lobby and political strategy attached to the refugees or the refugee producing nations.

India’s policy towards the refugees has been thoroughly analyzed by the South Asian Human Rights Documentation Center (SAHRDC). The following section provides excerpts from the Reports of the SAHRDC concerning the status of refugees in India with a special focus on the Sri Lankan Tamil Refugees.
The juridical basis of the international obligations to protect refugees, namely, non-refoulement including non-rejection at the frontier, non-return, non-expulsion or non-extradition and the minimum standard of treatment are traced in international conventions and customary law. The only treaty regime having near universal effect pertaining to refugees is the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol on the Status of Refugees which is the magna carta of refugee law. Since India has not yet ratified or acceded to this regime its legal obligation to protect refugees is traced mainly in customary international law. An examination of this aspect raises the basic question of relation and effect of international law with the Indian municipal law.
The Constitution of Indian contains just a few provisions on the status of international law in India. Leading among them is Article 51 (c), which states that
"the State [India] shall endeavor to foster respect for international law and treaty obligations in the dealings of organized peoples with one another."
Leaving a little confusion, this provision differentiates between international law and treaty obligations. It is, however, interpreted and understood that "international law" represents international customary law and "treaty obligations" represent international conventional law.(C.H. Alexanderowcz, (1952), p.2911) Otherwise the Article is lucid and directs India to foster respect for its international obligations arising under international law for its economic and social progress. Article 51 (c) is placed under the Directive Principles of State Policy in Part IV of the Indian Constitution, which means it is not an enforceable provision. Since the principle laid down in Article 51 is not enforceable and India has merely to endeavor to foster respect for international law, this Article would mean prima facie that international law is not incorporated into the Indian municipal law which is binding and enforceable. However, when Article 51(c) is read in the light of other Articles and judicial opinion and foreign policy statements, it suggests otherwise.
Before India became independent, the Indian courts under British rule administered the English Common law. They accepted the basic principles governing the relationship between international law and municipal law under the common law doctrine. Under the English common law doctrine, rules of international law in general were not accepted as part of municipal law. If, however, there was no conflict between these rules and the rules of municipal law, international law was accepted in municipal law without any incorporation. Indeed, the doctrine of common law is specific about certain international treaties affecting private rights of individuals. To implement such treaties, the doctrine requires modification of statutory law and the adoption of the enabling legislation in the form of an Act of Parliament.
These English common law principles are still applicable to India even after its independence, by virtue of Article 372 of the Constitution, which says that:
"all the laws in force in the territory of India immediately before the commencement of this Constitution shall continue in force therein until altered or repealed or amended by a competent legislature or other competent authority."(Gurdeep Singh, vol.28 (1988), p.2182.)
This common law practice has been followed by the Indian executive, legislature and judiciary even after the independence of India. For instance, until the specific legislations were adopted India observed the international customary rules regarding immunity from domestic jurisdiction and law of the sea particularly with regard to the high seas, maritime belt, and innocent passage.
Confirming the common law principle relating to the specific incorporation of certain treaties, Article 253 provides that:
" Parliament has power to make any law for the whole or any part of the territory of India for implementing any treaty, agreement or convention with any other country or countries or any decision made at any international conference, association or other body."
This Article implies that whenever there is a necessity to incorporate international obligations undertaken at international level or under international instruments into municipal law, the Parliament is empowered to do so. This is also acknowledged by the Indian judiciary as early as 1951. While delivering the judgement in the Birma v. The State of Rajasthan, the Rajasthan High Court, quoting the English common law principle, observed that certain treaties such as those affecting private rights must be legislated by Parliament to become enforceable.( A.I.R (1951) Raj, p.1273)
The judicial opinion is that rules of international law and municipal law should be construed harmoniously, and only when there is an inevitable conflict between these two laws the municipal law should prevail over international law.
Against this backdrop when one examines the binding force of international refugee law on India and its relations with Indian municipal law, one can conclude that as long as international refugee law does not come in conflict with Indian legislations or policies on the protection of refugees, international refugee law is a part the municipal law.
With this conclusion one hopes to examine the question as to whether international refugee law is in conflict in any way with Indian legislations or, in the absence of such legislations, with Indian attitude and policy on refugees.
India never had a clear policy as to whom to grant refugee status. When the question of adoption of a Convention and establishment of an agency for the international protection of refugees came for discussion in the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly, in 1949, the Indian delegation expressed its views on these issues4. Mr Mujeeb, a member of the delegation, told the Third Committee that instead of establishing a new organization for the protection of refugees, the International Organization for Refugees should be maintained and then the Third Committee should address itself to the drafting of the Convention on the legal protection of refugees. Again in the same Committee another member of the Indian delegation, Mrs Kripalani said that the Indian Government did not want to shrink from any of its international responsibilities, and it wished to take part in any humanitarian work undertaken by the UN.
She further said that in spite of its difficulties, India would have voted for the establishment of a High Commissioner's Office if it had been convinced that there was a great need to set up an elaborate international organization whose sole responsibility would be to give refugees legal protection. It was believed that at a time when its own refugees were dying of starvation, India felt obliged to vote against all the resolutions submitted, and hoped that its stand would not be misinterpreted5. After the Convention was adopted India did not ratify or accede, and the reasons for not doing so are never disclosed except that it was stated in the Parliament by the former External Affairs Minister, Mr B R Bhagat that since the Government had come up with certain basic difficulties, the implications, if India ratifies these Conventions, were under study6. In other words, India's initial stand on the treaty regime of the refugee law was declared to be a subject of review.
On the question of admission and non-refoulement, however, the Indian attitude is rather bleak. Even though India accepted the principle of non-refoulement as including non-rejection at the frontier under the "Bangkok Principles 1966", it did not observe that principle in its practice. Ignoring the fact that refugees leave their homes suddenly due to threats to their life and liberty, and by the nature of their flight they are unable to get the necessary travel documents from their home States, India deals with the question of admission of refugees and their stay until they are officially accorded refugee status, under legislations which deal with foreigners who voluntarily leave their homes in normal circumstances.
The chief legislation for the regulation of foreigners is the Foreigners Act, 1946 which deals with the matters of "entry of foreigners in India, their presence therein and their departure therefrom". Paragraph 3(1) of the Foreigners Order, 19487 lays down the power to grant or refuse permission to a foreigner to enter India, in the following terms:
"No foreigner shall enter India--
(a) otherwise than at such port or other place of entry on the borders of India as a Registration Officer having Jurisdiction at that port or place may appoint in this behalf; either for foreigners generally or any specified class or description of foreigners, or
(b) Without leave of the civil authorities having jurisdiction at such port or place."
This provision lays down a general obligation that no foreigner should enter India without the authorization of the authority having jurisdiction over such entry points. It is mainly intended to deal with illegal entrants and infiltrators. In case of persons who do not fulfil certain conditions of entry, the sub-para 2 of the Para 3 of the Order authorizes the civil authority to refuse the leave to enter India. The main condition is that unless exempted, every foreigner should be in possession of a valid passport or visa to enter India8.
As observed earlier, if refugees contravene any of these provisions they are liable to prosecution and thereby to the deportation proceedings. The practice shows that when the courts were approached by many Afghans, Iranians and Burmese against whom the Government of India initiated deportation proceedings under Sections 3 and 14 of the Foreigners Act, 1946 for their illegal entry into India, courts responded positively by accepting their plea that if they were returned they would face threats to their life and liberty and India had a long tradition of extending protection to many refugees. In the fitness of things, the courts have initially stayed the deportation proceedings9.
As for the minimum standard of treatment of refugees, India has undertaken an obligation by ratifying the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to accord an equal treatment to all non-citizens with its citizens wherever possible. India is presently a member of the Executive Committee of the UNHCR and it entails the responsibility to abide by international standards on the treatment of refugees.
As early as 1953 the then Prime Minister of India, Mr Jawaharlal Nehru informed Parliament that India would abide by international standards governing asylum by adopting similar, non-binding domestic policies. According to Article 51 of the non-binding Directive Principles of State Policy, India endeavors to "(a) promote international peace and security; (b) maintain just and honorable relations between nations; (c) foster respect for international law and treaty obligations.....; and (d) encourage settlement of international disputes by arbitration." Since then, the Indian Government has consistently affirmed the right of the state to grant asylum on humanitarian grounds. Based on this policy, India has granted asylum and refugee status to Tibetans and Tamils from Sri Lanka. The 1971 refugees from Bangladesh were officially called "evacuees", but were treated as refugees requiring temporary asylum.
No other community or group has been officially recognized as `refugees'. India claims to observe the principles of non-refoulement and thus never to return or expel any refugee whose life and liberty were under threat in his/her country of origin or residence. Non-refoulement is an important principle to international refugee law, which acts as a complete prohibition against the forcible return of people to a place where they will be subject to grave human rights violations or where their life or personal security will be seriously endangered. The principle of non- refoulement applies equally to refugees at the border of a state and to those already admitted, and it remains in force until the adverse conditions which prompted people to flee in the first place are alleviated.

Refuting this claim, Indian human rights groups do point to specific cases of refoulement, where clear evidence and refugee testimony prove that forcible repatriation has taken place. A closer examination of India's refugee policy reveals a number of intricate problems.

Refugee Categories
The plight of refugees in India generally depends upon the extent of protection they receive from either the Indian Government or the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Below is brief definition of the three primary categories followed by a description of the living conditions faced by each refugee category:
I. Refugees who receive full protection according to standards set by the Government of India;
II. Refugees whose presence in Indian territory is acknowledged only by UNHCR and are protected under the principle of non- refoulement;
III. Refugees who have entered India and have assimilated into their communities. Their presence is not acknowledged by either the Indian Government or UNHCR.

The Tamil Refugees
The Refugees belong to the first category who receive full protection from the Governent of India. Tamil refugees have fled to India in several waves significantly they have come in following the four episodes in Sri Lanka. When the conflict in Sri Lanka between the Sinhalese majority community and the Tamil minority took a violent turn in 1983, the Tamils fled to India on their tiny boats from the northern peninsula of Sri Lanka. During the first wave 134,053 Tamil refugees are reported to have come to India between 1983-198710.(SAHRDC 1996) Following the 1987 Accord with Sri Lanka and the Indian Government, which sought to create a power sharing agreement between the two warring communities, the Indian Government repatriated 25,885 Tamil refugees from 1987-198911.( SAHRDC 1996) India had to stop the repatriation program in 1989 when its shores were flooded again with another refugee wave fleeing Sri Lankan violence.
During this second phase of Tamil flight in search of a safe haven (1989-1991), 122,037 Tamil refugees reportedly reached India but 113,298 of them were held in 298 camps along the coastal Indian states of Tamilnadu and Orissa.( SAHRDC 1996) Once again, the Indian Government repatriated a large number of Tamil refugees with the cooperation of UNHCR. About 31,000 refugees have been returned to Sri Lanka between 1992-1995. The current influx of refugees started in January 2006 with the conflict escalating in Trincomalee and Batticoloa areas, since then about 20,000 refugees have arrived in India. Among these a few are reported to have returned spontaneously in addition to the returnees during the active cease fire period that amounted to about 6,000 returnees. As a result of these repatriations and returns, roughly half of the original 85,000 refugees remain in Tamilnadu, India.( SAHRDC 1996).
Though the refugees were originally welcomed to Tamilnadu, the assassination of Mr Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991 by a suspected member and suicide bomber of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam turned public sentiment and government authorities against the Tamil refugees. Soon after Rajiv Gandhi's death, India began a program of "voluntary" repatriation, under which more than 23,000 refugees were repatriated without international supervision. It is now apparent that most of those refugees were coerced in various overt and covert ways to leave the refugee camps in Tamilnadu.
The Special Camps
In addition to the regular camps, the State Government has converted sub-jails into so-called special camps.
As per the reports of the Department of rehabilitation of the Government of Tamil Nadu, At present, two Special Camps are functioning, one at Chengalpattu, Kancheepuram District and another in Cheyyar, Tiruvannamalai District. The following categories of Sri Lankan Tamils are lodged in the Special Camps: (1) Those involved in the criminal cases, including those on bail, (2) those released after disposal of the cases, (3) those with other adverse reports such as involvement in smuggling/criminal activities and members of families of those who fall under these categories. As their movements are restricted, cooked food is being supplied to them instead of Cash Doles12 .
Since 1990, hundreds of refugees have been detained in these facilities. The SAHRDC and the National Human Rights Commission of India have compiled numerous reports of non-militant refugees, particularly young Tamil males, being arrested and detained under the Foreigners Act. Many of these individuals have been languishing in detention facilities for more than three years and still do not know why they were arrested. When pressed, the government justifies these Special Camps as necessary measures to deal with alleged Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam terrorists.

  1. Repatriation of Refugees

On the Sri Lanka repatriation, UNHCR states that, "Between 1992 and 1 January 1996, 54,059 persons returned from India and benefited from UNHCR's Special Program in Sri Lanka. Of this number, 7464 persons were staying in government centres as of 30 April 1996, while the remainder had returned to their home areas. A total of 10,013 persons returned in the first quarter of 1995.(SAHRDC 1996) The UNHCR statistics on the voluntary repatriation of refugees from India are not supported by evidence. The UNHCR has allegedly connived with the Government of India in hastily repatriating the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees. Many of these refugees who could not reach their native places but live in the refugee camps back in Sri Lanka are fleeing back to India. By October 1996, 2000 reached the Indian State of Tamilnadu to seek refuge again13. (SAFHR October 1996)
As a part of it's protection mandate, UNHCR is expected to share the information on the conflict situation in the country of origin but failed to do so for the last five years to the Tamil refugees. Rather, it was informing the refugees that "certain liberated zones" were available for the refugees to return to. Refugees shifted to the Pesalai camps in Sri Lanka from India in 1994 could not go to their places languished in UNHCR transit camps till 1996 when conflict broke out. Many of them returned to India. (SAFHR October 1996)
These are some 56,000 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees accommodated in Indian camps and another further 45,000 reportedly living outside the camps. A court order forced the government to halt the repatriation program and gave the UNHCR the right to interview the returnees14.(SAHRDC July-August 1995) However, the UNHCR is not allowed access to the camps and cannot speak to the refugees until they have already consented to leave India. It is clear that the token presence of UNHCR in Madras only provides respectability to what is essentially a program of involuntary repatriation.
Following up on rumors of forced repatriation and deplorable conditions in the Tamil refugee camps in Tamilnadu, a SAHRDC researcher visited the camps in July 1996 and published a report which details the systematic violations of Tamil refugee rights and the implicit involvement of the Government of India. The report also claimed that “the Indian Government appears determined to allow conditions to deteriorate to the point where refugees would rather return to the violence of Sri Lanka than stay in the camps”.
The fact that the Indian Government has not acceded to the international Refugee Convention has adverse effects upon the Tamil refugees. The Convention established basic rights such as food, water and shelter that the host country should provide its refugees. Since India is not a signatory, Tamil refugees are subject to the whims of the political party in power. The State Government in Tamilnadu, though originally sympathetic to the refugee's cause, consistently failed to maintain the refugee camps in accordance with well-recognized international standards. Thus, the policies of India and the State of Tamilnadu directly contravene conventional human rights laws as well as customary international law regarding non-refoulement.
However, the refugees, who are willing to go back to their homeland or to any other country at their own cost, are allowed to do so. During 2005-06, 770 Exit Permits were issued to Sri Lankan refugees by various District Collectors.

The Camp Refugees

This particular section will concentrate on the situation of the Sri Lankan Refugees who live in camps in the State of Tamil Nadu.

Owing to the violent ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, the Tamils started pouring into India in 1983 following the July riots. In 1987 following the Indo-Sri Lankan accord almost all the refugees went back to their country. When the violence erupted again in 1989 people came to India as refugees only to go back in a years time. In 1990 there was a major influx of refugees as an impact of the Eelam war II. Most people who live in the camps today are those who made it to India in 1990. However about 5000 people are being claimed to have returned to Sri Lanka during the active cease fire time from 2002 february to 2005 December when the violence was down scaled. Again in January 2006 refugees started to pour inside India as soon as the fighting resumed. Currently there are about 80,000 refugees living in 117 camps in Tamil Nadu.

The Process of Refugee Arrival and Reaching the Camp

With the conflict raging in Sri Lanka thousands of Tamils are internally displaced in their own country. Some of them have been displaced multiple times. When the conflict grows intolerable they make the tough decision to seek safety in another country. Interviews with those ready for departure suggests that moving to another country is the toughest decision for a person who is affected by the conflict, yet they decide to leave because safety is the only consoling fact. Dodging the coastal surveillance and the militant groups they negotiate an affordable price with a local boat man. Usually they pay between Rs 6000 to Rs 12,000 to get a safe ride to India. Depending on the voltage of the conflict the boats are loaded. If the violence in the country is very high many people are waiting to come to India and hence the Boatmen take advantage of the situation and take more money and accommodated more than what the boat can take.

In the rough seas they set sail. A boat that can carry 8 people is always carrying about 25 people along with their basic belongings. In variably the boat meets with some disaster such as engine damage, fiber breakage, fuel loss and so on. Since they travel clandestinely the boat men take longer routes. The ride that would normally take 1 hour from Thalai Mannar to Dhaushkodi has always taken about 3 to 5 hours.
The boatmen fearing the Indian Navy drop the refugees on the sand mounds near Rameshwaram in Tamilnadu. Here the refugees wait to be rescued by the Indian Coast guards.
According to the Department of Rehabilitation15 of the Government of Tamil Nadu the Reception and Registration of Refugees takes places in the following way

“On arrival of refugees, the local Police Inspector will enquire the refugees to ensure whether they are genuine refugees really affected in the ethnic problem and arriving in India to save their lives. After enquiry by the local Police Inspector, the refugees will be screened by Police authorities of ‘Q’ Branch and intelligence Bureau to segregate the militants if any mingled with the refugees and to check the antecedents of refugees. During the verifications, if LTTE. drop outs, smugglers etc came to notice, action is being taken to lodge them in the Special Camp to restrict their movement and safeguard the security of State U/s 3(2)e of Foreigner’s Act. After screening by Police authorities, the Revenue Officials will register the refugees in the admission register after verifying the documents if any, such as Identification Card, School records etc and records showing the details of such as name of the refugee, occupation, address in Sri Lanka etc. Then the refugees will be photographed to record identity of each member and to paste in the Identity Card”.

After a day’s wait they are taken to the Mandapam Camp’s Special Deputy Collector’s office. Here the men and women are quarantined separately and queried for militant links. After this process they are medically examined and registered as refugees. The refugees are allotted houses inside the Mandapam camp and are given basic amenities to start a new life. Within a fortnight the refugees receive their refugee card with a unique number. They also receive a family card to avail the government dole and the rations. The refugees can also opt for camps where their relatives live and apply for a camp transfer. In most cases the refugees get a chance to stay in proximity to their social contacts.
Life in a Refugee Camp
Camp is the name given to a place where refugees are assigned to stay. Initially the refugees were assigned to stay in camps temporarily for a period of three to six months. In accordance with the political and safety climate in Sri Lanka the refugees have now stayed in the camps for nearly 17 years.
Refugee camps are broadly classified into three categories. Located on the outskirts of villages people were allotted individual temporary houses measuring 10 X 10 length and breadth. To an outsider it looks like a small village community. Initially the houses were made of lite roof material that would radiate heat. This made living in the houses impossible hence the refugees would add on a thatch to the roof to provide a cooling effect. Over the years the lite Roof gave way and the refugees started mend their houses with locally available materials.
There used to be a common toilet in the camps. Since majority of the camps are located in dry areas, the acute water shortage made the toilets unusable. Hence the refugees use the barren lands or thorn bushes to relieve themselves. In the recent years water facility has been made available in many camps hence new toilets are resurfacing to take care of the sanitary needs to the camp members. The camps would have a fence surrounding it and was guarded by a police outpost. Eventually in many camps the fencing disappeared but the police outposts still remain in a few camps.
The second type is known as a godown camp. These were grain storehouses of the Food Corporation of India. These places were huge halls that could accommodate 100 families of four or five members each. Every family was given a small space inside the hall and they had to make their own walls with sarees or card boards to avail some privacy. Toilet facilities are located just outside the camps. Due to the disproportion of the toilets to the population many camp residents defecate in the nearby open places.
Special Camp is yet another category of the refugee camp. Refugees who have militant affiliations, those caught on grounds of crime or suspicion of crime are kept in a special camp. The special camp has the status of a subjail resorting to
Refugee Assistance16
While living in the camp the refugees receive a refugee card which acts as an identification card. In addition to this there is a card for the procurement of the rations. In order to take care of the immediate food and life needs of the refugee community the State and the Central Governments started assisting the refugees with a subsistence allowance of Rs 200 for the head of the household, Rs 144 for the adult members, Rs 90 for the children below the age of 12 and every subsequent child got Rs- 45. Currently the following is the dole pattern:


Members in Family

Amount per month


Individual member (above 12 years of age)/Head of Family



Each additional member



First child (less than 12 years of age)



Each additional child


A sum of Rs.17.71 crores has been provided in the current financial year. From August 2006, the monthly expenditure on cash dole will be in the order of Rs.1.58 crores. The Government has to incur an additional expenditure of Rs.9 crores annually.

  1. Subsidized Rice

Rice at subsidized rate of Rs.0.57 paise per Kilogram as per Government of India guideline is supplied to the refugees accommodated in the refugee camps, as below:


Members in Family



Adult (8 Years and above)

400 grams per day


Children (Below 8 years)

200 grams per day

Tamil Nadu Civil Supplies Corporation distributes the rice through their Public distribution outlets and through the shops run by Co-operative Institutions. The differential cost is reimbursed by the Government. A sum of Rs.9.5 crores has been provided in the current financial year for the supply of subsidised rice. The Government of India has discontinued the subsidised rice scheme from 05.08.2005. However, the scheme is now being funded by the State Government. The State Government has been requesting the Government of India to restore the rice subsidy scheme for the Sri Lankan Refugees.

  1. Subsidized Rice

Clothes and Mats are supplied free of cost to the refugee families staying in various camps every year at the scales prescribed by the Government of India. Blankets are also supplied free of cost to them once in two years.

  1. Utensils

Household utensils are supplied free of cost to all the refugee families accommodated in camps once in two years. As new inmates to the refugee camps arrive every day, the above mentioned facilities have to be provided to them also. This increases the expenditure in this regard. A sum of Rs.3.13 crores has been provided in the current financial year for clothing and utensils.

  1. Infrastructure Development Program

Under the Infrastructure Development Programme during 2005-06, the Government sanctioned an amount of Rs.23.81 lakhs for provision of basic amenities such as provision of street lights, construction of compound wall to Kottapattu Refugee camp and special repairs to sewage pipe lines in the camp colony in Mandapam refugee camp. Recently a special sanction of Rs.27.42 lakhs has been made on 27.06.2006 to provide special repairs to hutments, toilet blocks, road, electrification of huts, street lights and other connected works in Mandapam Refugee Camp and the works are in progress.
The Revenue Inspector (RI) is incharge of every camp. He is responsible for the registration of the refugees, distribution of rations and doles, maintenance of law and order and overall camp maintenance.
The Revenue inspector also monitors the movement of the refugees. The refugees are expected to leave the camps only after 6:00 am and should be back by 6:00 pm. If for some reason the refugees have to exceed the time limit they have to seek prior permission stating the purpose of not abiding to the timing. A bi monthly checking is done in every camp. During the checking all the residents of the camp are expected to answer a roll call of the Revenue inspector. Failure of answer the roll call certainly results in the cancellation of the registration. Moreover it will also lead to the suspension of the doles and rations. This may even lead to the refugees being moved out of the camps.

  1. Educational Facilities

When the refugees arrived they were not allowed into the local schools for education. Even in the year 1984 the refugees realized that the only asset they would take back upon return was education. With the ethnic conflict displacing about 8.5 lakh tamils to developed countries who have settled there the forced brain drain is permanent. Some refugee community leaders believe that when peace is restored in Sri Lanka the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora will not return to rebuild the nation. The process of rebuilding the nation rests with the refugees who will definitely return. Hence with the strong advocacy of the activist groups such as PROTEG refugees were admitted into local government schools.
In the case of higher education there was a quota system of 5 seats for engineering and medicine respectively, 25 seats for law and unlimited merit based entry into government Arts and Science colleges. From 1990 upto 2003 about 2500 refugees graduated out of colleges. In 2003 the quota system was challenged in the court and brought to a halt. Henceforth the refugees were disadvantaged without access to professional education in the government institutions. The only resort was the private institutions, which are unaffordable for the refugees. Due to this the enrollment of refugees in colleges has drastically dropped. After further appeal to the decision of the courts was in favor of the refugees yet there is no change in the admission procedure. Activists groups are still campaigning for the right to access to higher education in government colleges.
The Government of Tamil Nadu provides educational facilities to the children of refugees. The children of refugees are admitted in schools without production of transfer certificate from the schools last studied in Sri Lanka and are allowed to continue their studies. The school going refugee children are provided with free uniforms, noon meal, bus pass, text books, note books and bicycles. The refugee children are allowed to continue their studies anywhere in Tamil Nadu and are given cash dole and other assistance admissible for a refugee through their parents who stay in camps. Special Educational Reservation in higher education, which was in existence till 2002-2003, has been recommended by the State Government to Government of India for restoration
The majority of the camp refugee population currently belonging to the age group of 35-50 has very little technical qualifications. The maximum education of these refugees is up to Advanced Level (A/L) an equivalent of the Higher Secondary education in India.
Occupation and Livelihood
Most refugees who came to India were engaged in agriculture or fishing in Sri Lanka. Some were involved in daily wage jobs or running small businesses. Upon coming to India they are given a subsistence dole but are legally not permitted to work. Additionally the camps located far from the coastal areas and fertile lands. Both fishing and agriculture were not possible in the new refugee settlement. With the stringent camp regulations restricting their movements they were unable to go in search of alternative jobs. This situation did not last very long. Once they were able to convince the local authorities and build a rapport and win their sympathy they were able to move out of the camps in search of new occupations.
Some of the immediately welcoming areas of labour were laying underground cables, construction of roads, cement loading, iron smelting, brick making and so on. These occupations were waiting to receive them for a few reasons such as: non availability of local labour, unwillingness of the local people in engage in such activities, hazardous nature of the jobs, and trustworthiness of the people.
With the known occupations being impossible the refugees looked for ways to survive. Despite the dole and the subsidized rationing of a few food items the refugees find it impossible to make ends meet. This has forced them to take several initiatives to learn new jobs to care of their family. Some of the new jobs they have undertaken are, masonry, painting, scaffolding, Laying concrete centering, tailoring, carpentry, fence erection, roof construction, brick making, jewelry making, basket weaving, chair seat weaving, iron smith, cycle repairing, motor mechanic, automobile driving, welding, digging wells, kitchen gardening, poultry, cattle rearing, and many more.
Some of the occupations are done in groups. Painting, laying concrete, fencing, centering for buildings are done by a few refugees who agree to come together and work as a unit. They get contracts and complete the job as a team. Some refugees work as daily wage earners. Many women start raising chicken or goats, have a kitchen garden and other domestic income generating activities. A few refugees set up petty shops inside the camps. Some of the educated refugees work for service organizations such as OFERR, JRS, ADRA and others as teachers, counselors, health workers, anganwadi helpers and so on.
Obtaining permission to leave the camp often depends on the vagaries of the camp authorities. Moreover travel restrictions make search for employment almost impossible. Hence the refugees are confined to jobs that are around the camp locations.
Confronted with strict regulations and inadequate doles the refugees life is an endless struggle. Most of them try to manage the situation by winning the good will of the camp authorities and go in search of jobs. Most of the camp refugees work as laborers for daily wages in a various fields.

  1. Health and Sanitation

An SAHRDC report claims that camp conditions vary from district to district, depending on the sympathies of local officials. The camps closest to Madras are, for the most part, well-maintained, while in Pooluvapatti Camp near Coimbatore, 4700 refugees use eight latrines. Accumulated waste, cramped quarters, lack of adequate electricity and poor sanitation all contribute to the miserable state of the Camps.
Additionally, the health of the refugees has deteriorated significantly since NGOs were banned from entering the camps. Previously, NGOs had been allowed to provide primary health care and supplement meager monthly stipends and food rations such as rice, sugar and kerosene provided by the Government of Tamilnadu. Now, without supplements from NGOs, most refugees must spend what little money that they have on expensive open market food because payment of the stipend rarely coincides with the arrival of subsidized rations. Also, camp officials are known to use the stipends and rations as bargaining chips, telling the refugees that they will only receive their stipends if they agree to leave the country.
The Indian Government restricts the movement of the Tamils in Tamilnadu. Members of the police and "Q" branch17 of the state intelligence agency are stationed at the gates of many of the camps to carefully monitor their activities. “One government official claimed that the police protect the refugees, but the Tamils themselves believe that the guards are more concerned with controlling their movement"18(SAHRDC 1996).
One field visit report of the SAHRDC says that the Camp authorities employ indirect measures to restrain the Tamils. In the case of the Poolvapatti camp in Tamilnadu the refugees were told by the Village Administrative Official that they could leave the camp to visit other areas if they wanted to, but that their daily allowances would be cut if they did (SAHRDC 1996).
According to an OfERR survey conducted in the year 2005 the causes of child malnourishment are outlined as : There is inadequate dietary intake because of insufficient access to food. This is attributed to the poor income and also 15 percent of the refugees were without camp registration and missed the monthly rations. A healthy food basket with 2800 calories would cost Rs 2266.50 but most of the refugees spend only Rs 1500 for a family of four. The protein consumption of the refugees is less than 50 grams pre day and the fat calories are also less than 15 percent which is required. The cost of coconuts being high and fresh vegetables also out of reach the refugees also suffer from a protein and oil inadequacy. Due to the poor buying capacity they are faced with severe micronutrient deficiencies and with compromised immunity making them vulnerable to diseases. Additionally they are unable to go to the doctor and comply with the medication as they are unaffordable. The situation is further complicated by the lack of access to safe drinking water and unsafe waste disposal.
The refugees are given free medical attention in Government Hospitals and Primary Health Centres situated near the camps Based on its 1996 field study the SAHRDC recommended that “if the Indian Government is serious about maintaining the camps it should allow NGOs to resume their former duties. Furthermore, UNHCR, accustomed to treading lightly in India where it is not an officially recognized UN agency, should arm itself with the international conventions to which it owes its creation and take a more pro-active role in the protection of the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees”19. (SAHRDC 1996)

In conclusion

The only imaginable reason that people give for living in such difficult conditions is safety. Many time when I have asked the refugees, “Why do you live here?” The answer is “there are no guns around and we really need not worry about coming back when we go out. Hence we tolerate all the hardships and will continue to live here till we are sent back” Similar sentiments are heard in every protracted refugee situation around the world. Some times one wonders if it will all end at all but it is only hope that keep them going.

1C.H. Alexanderowcz, "International Law in India", International and Comparative Law Quarterly, vol.I (1952), p.291.

2 Gurdeep Singh, "Status of Human Rights Covenants in India", Indian Journal of International Law, vol.28 (1988), p.218.

3 A.I.R (1951) Raj, p.127. The judgment was not delivered in relation to Article 253 but is relevant in its context as it was delivered after the entry into force of the Constitution of India.

4 Summary Records of the Third Committee meeting 259 (10 November 1949), GAOR, Sixth Session, p. 8143; and Mrs Kripalani, ibid., mtg 263 (15 November 1949), p.8144.

5 Summary Records of the Third Committee meeting 259 (10 November 1949), GAOR, Sixth Session, p. 8143; and Mrs Kripalani, ibid., mtg 263 (15 November 1949), p.8144.

6 India, Lok Sabha Debates, vol.XVII, 7 May 1986, col.32.

7 The Foreigners Order, 1948 is made by the Central Government in the exercise of the powers conferred by section 3 of the Foreigners Act, 1946.

8 Para 3(2) (a) of the Foreigners Order, 1948, read with Rule 3 of the Passport (Entry into India) Rules, 1950

9 Writ Petitions Nos. 450/83; 605-607/84; 169/87; 732/87; 747/87; 243/88; 336/88; and 274/88; SLP (Cr) Nos. 3261/1987; 274/1988 and 338/1988

10 "Sri Lankan Tamil Refugees in Tamilnadu Camps - Voluntary Repatriation or Subtle Refoulment", South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre, New Delhi, January 1996.

11 "Sri Lankan Tamil Refugees in Tamilnadu Camps - Voluntary Repatriation or Subtle Refoulment", South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre, New Delhi, January 1996.


13 "Sri Lankan Tamil Refugees in India: Accords, People and the UNHCR", presented by the Jesuit Refugee Service, South Asia in a seminar on "Refugees, migrants and displaced peoples in South Asia", organized by South Asia Forum for Human Rights in Kathmandu, Nepal, October 1996.

14 SAHRDC News, New Delhi, July-August 1995, Volume 1, Number 2.



17 The "Q" branch is the Special Branch of the Tamilnadu Police. It is known for illegal arrests, unacknowledged detention, torture, harassment and intimidation of Tamil refugees. It is also used against political opponents and trade union activists.

18 "Sri Lankan Tamil Refugees in Tamilnadu Camps - Voluntary Repatriation or Subtle Refoulment", South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre, New Delhi, January 1996.

19 "Sri Lankan Tamil Refugees in Tamil Nadu Camps - Voluntary Repatriation or Subtle Refoulment", South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre, New Delhi, January 1996.

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