The Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, M.K. Stalin, recently won plaudits for announcing a very comprehensive welfare package totaling INR 317 crore for Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in the State.

But experts say that the ideal solution to the refugee question is to grant them Indian citizenship which will enable them to shape their lives themselves without State aid of any kind.

To his credit, Stalin did announce that an inclusive committee would be formed to consider the issue of granting Indian citizenship. But experience shows that Tamil Nadu political parties have no will to get that done at New Delhi where the decision-makers are.

Stalin told the State legislature that 304,269 Lankan Tamils had arrived in Tamil Nadu since 1983, and of them, 58,822 belonging to 18,944 families are housed in 108 camps spread across 29 districts. And 34,087 are living elsewhere after due registration.

He then magnanimously offered a hefty welfare package. Of the total of Rs.371 crore, Rs. 261.54 crore would be allocated for improving infrastructure in the refugee camps; Rs.12.25 crore would be allocated for improving educational and job opportunities; and Rs.43.61 crore for raising their living standards. 7,469 dilapidated tenements in the camps would be rebuilt at a cost of Rs. 231.54 crore and that 3,510 new houses would be built in the first phase this fiscal.

The government would bear the tuition and hostel fees of 55 refugee students. Fifty students in engineering and five others in agriculture and agricultural engineering streams would get assistance based on marks secured. Government will remit the tuition and hostel fees of all post graduate students living in camps and INR 1 crore would be allotted for the purpose.

Those studying in polytechnics would get Rs. 10,000 instead of Rs.2,500. For graduate studies in arts and science streams, the scholarship would be increased to Rs. 12,000 from Rs. 3,000. For graduate level vocational courses, the scholarship would be increased to Rs. 20,000 from Rs. 5,000.

Cooking gas connections and stoves would be provided to camp inmates on a one-time basis and a subsidy of INR 400 would be provided for five gas cylinders. Rice provided to the refugees over and above the 20 kg entitlement would also be provided free of cost. The Chief Minister further said the proposed committee on broader issues would consider providing appropriate support to refugees living outside the camps also.

While these schemes are admittedly very useful, the refugees feel that they do not address the main issue, namely, their refugee status, which is tantamount to Statelessness. They cannot, or do not want to, go back to Sri Lanka for fear of ethnic discrimination there. At the same time, they are not citizens of India, which means absence of fundamental rights. This is despite the fact that many of their families have been living in India since 1983.

As non-citizens in India, which is not party to the international convention on refugees, and where the UNHCR has only a restricted role, the Lankan Tamil refugees face some key issues. For example, they are not considered for government jobs and have to look for openings only in the private sector. They cannot own immovable property. And, of course, they cannot vote.

Technically they cannot even work outside the camps. They have to be in camps when periodical checks take place. Theoretically, they can be harassed by anybody, police and officials included. But fortunately, the people of Tamil Nadu, and its police and officials do not harass them as they have been traditionally hospitable to outsiders, especially Sri Lankan Tamils who had run way from war zones with nothing with them except the clothes they were wearing.

Studies have revealed that while some of the older generation of refugees yearn to go back to their villages in Sri Lanka, if conditions are suitable, the younger generation, especially those born in India, do not want to go back. According to an article The Hindu by Prof. V.Suryanarayan, the majority of the refugees want to stay in India. The author quotes UNHCR sources to say that between 2002 and 2020, only 17,718 refugees had been repatriated. And according to the Policy Note 2019-20, between 2014 and March 2019, only 4,017 refugees had gone back to Sri Lanka.

The reasons to stay on are many. Easy availability of educational opportunities in Tamil Nadu from the school to the university level; guarantee a roof over the head in the camps; and a number of freebees given to them, keep them in India. A number of refugees have married local Tamils and live and speak like them. They take jobs in the private sector, practice trades and do business.

And most importantly, they value the freedom they enjoy in Tamil Nadu; the near zero prospect of being harassed by any community, the police or the army. And the State administration is generally well disposed towards them.

In contrast, they fear harassment in Sri Lanka. There is a general impression that the Lankan administration, being dominated by non-Tamils would give them step-motherly treatment. Unfortunately, Sri Lankan Tamil politicians and the media keep dinning into their ears day in and day out, that in Sri Lanka, Tamils are denied their rights and their lands are being grabbed. Negative propaganda hides the facilities offered by the Lankan government and the rehabilitation work of OfERR, an NGO run by S.C.Chandrahasan.

There is opposition in New Delhi to giving refugees Indian citizenship. Indian citizenship is given very sparingly. And after the end of the war in Sri Lanka, the island’s Tamils are not thought to be discriminated against or persecuted unlike the Hindus of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan. India has always had a policy of bringing peace to Sri Lanka so that the refugees could be sent back.

The Dravidian political parties in Tamil Nadu like the DMK and the AIADMK have been wanting New Delhi to amend the citizenship laws to accommodate the Lankan Tamil refugees especially those who have been staying here for decades. But the appeals have been in vain. Part of the blame for this should be placed at the door of the Tamil Nadu parties themselves. While the “national” parties like Congress, BJP and the Communists give no importance to the issue, the Dravidian parties like AIADMK and DMK do not cooperate. In fact, they go with the Center if they are in a political alliance with the Center.

When the Citizenship Amendment (CAA) Bill was being debated in the Indian parliament, the AIADMK supported the Centre’s policy of keeping the Lankan Tamils off the list of persecuted people. The then Tamil Nadu chief minister said that his government would urge the Centre to give dual citizenship to Lankan refugees, knowing fully well that India had rejected dual citizenship long ago. The Lankan Tamil refugees, except a few, have no genealogical links with India to be taken under the new category of Overseas Citizens of India (OCI).

Citizenship laws would therefore have to be amended to give Lankan refugees citizenship They could be given this facility on humanitarian grounds on the basis of long residence.

However, some refugees have returned with help of the Lankan and Indian governments. Many have applied for and acquired Sri Lankan passports and birth certificates. Returnees believe that it is better to be a citizen of a country than be a Stateless refugee.

By granting Indian citizenship, the government could close the refugee camps and save enormous amounts of money. And the vast manpower now dedicated to the upkeep of the camps and policing them, can be diverted for other purposes. Lankan Tamils are resourceful enough to look after themselves without State aid, if freed from constraints.