Steady Trickle of Sri Lankan Refugees in Tamil Nadu
Over a 100 refugees now
This week, another eight refugees from Sri Lanka arrived at Dhanushkodi, Tamil Nadu in hopes of a better future. The total number of refugees to have fled the economic crisis, mostly Tamils from the North and East provinces of the island nation and landed on Indian shores has now crossed 100. Technically, foreigners who arrive without proper documents are produced before a magistrate and remanded in judicial custody.
However, the government has decided to do away with these procedures and refugees are being taken straight to Mandapam, the refugee centre in Rameswaram, with officials carefully scrutinizing their background.
Earlier last week, a refugee, a 71-year-old woman and her husband were found unconscious on the shore at Dhanushkodi. They were sighted by local fishermen who alerted the authorities. She later succumbed to medical complications and died in the hospital. Refugees have been resorting to strenuous long journeys across the sea, in the hope that things would be better on the other side.
Even though the shortest route between Dhanushkodi and Sri Lanka is just 27 kilometres, the journey by sea can take a toll on the refugees, especially now that they don't have enough food and basic necessities. However, refugees are willing to risk it because they feel that this is their last attempt to survive. Once they reach here though, things are not as they expect. With cramped spaces and no freedom of mobility, life in the refugee camp offers no real respite.
Nagaleswaran, a refugee who fled Sri Lanka and arrived here two months ago with his five children ago says, "Back in Sri Lanka, I knew I wouldn't be able to survive. There were no jobs, no food. I was forced to take the decision to leave. I arrived here with my children on a boat and we've been at the camp since then. Life here is not easy by any means. The money allocated for each family by the government doesn't reach us. So we don't have any money. We don't have any clothes except the ones we were wearing on the boat. In fact, I lost my slippers on the boat and I still haven't been able to buy new slippers.
"If we have money in our hands, we can go out and buy what we need. But now we are not allowed to go out. There's a store in the campus. Sometimes we buy things on loan and when we have money, we pay them back. But everything is costlier in the store here. We are managing somehow. We don't have jobs here. My children can't go to school either. They just sit in the camp all day. The only reason I'm glad to be here is that at least we get meals three times a day here."
In March 2022, TN Chief Minister M K Stalin had written to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi to grant refugee status to the refugees fleeing the economic crisis. However, as there has been no concrete decision taken yet, the refugees are forced to be confined to the camps. Like Nagaleswaran, they don't have the rights granted to 'refugees' under the UN convention, to seek work and earn a living or even send their kids to school."