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Sins of Omission: How CAA Plays a Cruel Joke on Sri Lankan Tamil Refugees

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By ETV Bharat English Team

Published : Apr 9, 2024, 9:49 PM IST

Updated : Apr 10, 2024, 11:01 PM IST

While the Central Government grants citizenship to religious minorities in neighbouring countries under the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), no such provision has been made for Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka residing for decades in Tamil Nadu. ETV Bharat visited the refugee camps in Coimbatore and Madurai to know the challenges faced by this community. Officially dubbed 'illegal immigrants', the term is the biggest hurdle to their dreams of becoming Indian citizens.

While the Central Government grants citizenship to religious minorities in neighbouring countries under the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), no such provision has been made for Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka residing for decades in Tamil Nadu. ETV Bharat visited the refugee camps in Coimbatore and Madurai to know the challenges faced by this community. Officially dubbed 'illegal immigrants', the term is the biggest hurdle to their dreams of becoming Indian citizens.
Sins of Omission: How CAA Plays a Cruel Joke on Sri Lankan Tamil Refugees (Photo: ETV Bharat)

Sins of Omission: How CAA Plays a Cruel Joke on Sri Lankan Tamil Refugees

Chennai: Called the 'nowhere people', the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees fled to India in the 1980s seeking safety and asylum from the harrowing Sri Lankan Civil War. The contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Act could have been the ultimate solution to their decades' long suffering. It could have but it is not. The law hits these refugees hard by omitting them.

The Modi government announced the implementation of the CAA rules last month, four years after the bill was passed. Under CAA, Indian citizenship will be provided on a fast-track basis to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, or Pakistan, who had entered India on or before December 31, 2014.

The green signal to the law came amid stiff criticism, with political and social circles highlighting its drawbacks, and calling it 'discriminatory'. The most significant of the questions posed against the law has been that it does not protect all religious minorities, nor does it apply to all neighbours. Sri Lankan Tamil refugees, a community of nearly 60,000 people, are not covered under CAA even though they came to India facing circumstances similar to ones that are.

Grim present and dark future

A visit to their camps in Madurai and Coimbatore reveals the sordid state these refugees are living in. In the Pooluvapatti camp in Coimbatore, around 1800 Tamil refugees are put up in temporary single or two-room asbestos-roof houses. Most of them do not have in-house toilets and have to use public ones, with around one toilet per hundred refugees. Women and children, particularly, have to live in unhygienic surroundings. Lack of opportunities due to non-citizenship hampers any attempt to improve their living standard.

Youth in these camps find chasing a mirage as they pursue education in schools and colleges, without any hope of getting a reasonable employment.

"I study in class 11 and wish to become a government bank manager. But, since I am not a citizen, I cannot pursue such jobs. I cannot even prepare for competitive exams. I feel my education is useless," said Preeti (name changed), one of the many teens living in the camp who stare at a dark future.

A refugee woman in her early 40s said despite living in India for several decades, her life has hardly improved. "We have been here for 30 years, but we are only able to take care of our basic needs of clothing and food. If we had citizenship, we would have bought some land after taking a bank loan. It would have benefited us and our children greatly," she said, requesting not to be named. The woman argued that those who move to other countries get citizenship in a matter of 5 to 10 years. "We have been living in India for 35 years, yet we have nothing".

"Even if we go to Sri Lanka now, we don't have their citizenship. Does it mean, till the end of our lives, we are compelled to live as refugees? We will vote for the party that is offering citizenship. We are begging the central and state governments to give citizenship, we don't need anything else," she said.

Another female refugee who managed to study nursing could not apply for a government job and had to settle on a private one where she is paid measly. "According to my educational qualification, I will get job opportunities in government hospitals. But due to non-citizenship, I am not eligible. I am working in a private hospital for a very low salary," the woman said.

Many other refugees in the camp have good educational qualifications but are forced to take up informal jobs. It is a common sight in such camps of educated men to go and work as painters and wage labourers in hotels.

Hurdles to a normal life

Besides not being able to apply for jobs, the Sri Lankan Tamils living in Camps cannot acquire or transfer immovable property in India other than lease, not exceeding five years. They are also unable to own vehicles or acquire licenses for heavy motor vehicles due to undocumented administrative instructions owing to their present status as 'illegal migrants'.

They are also unable to register and own light motor vehicles in their names as the current rules for registration of vehicles does not accept the Government issued Identity Card to Sri Lankan Tamils.

Life becomes more difficult when youth start to look for jobs after completing studies. This is when Q Branch (internal security), one of the wings of Tamil Nadu Police, begins to keep an eye on their movement. The Q Branch police officials who monitor the camps impose a strict rule that once the youths in these camps start working, they must appear in person and in time for the audit. Failure to appear in three consecutive audits will result in cancellation of the registration of the particular person from the camp.

Challenges and mental health concerns

A 2022 UNHCR analysis found that 47% of the refugee women seem to have mental health concerns such as sleeplessness, aloofness and feeling depressed. Reasons cited by the women included debt, being worried about their future as a refugee, physical threats, alcoholism and substance abuse of a family member and other marital issues. Amongst this percentage of women, it was found that 2% displayed suicidal ideations very regularly, 7% quite often and 19% rarely.

How the numbers speak

In 2021, a committee was formed by the Tamil Nadu government regarding the rehabilitation of Sri Lankan Tamils living in the state and an interim report was submitted to Chief Minister M.K. Stalin in September 2023.

As per the report, about 58,200 Sri Lankan Tamils have registered in 104 camps across the southern state. Of these, 33,400 refugees have opted to reside outside the camps and are registered with the jurisdictional police stations.

The report reveals that about 45 percent of all the refugees were born in rehabilitation camps in India. 79 percent have been living in India for more than 30 years. 25 percent of camp residents are children, while 8 percent are married to Indian citizens. 95 percent of Sri Lankan Tamils living have Aadhaar cards. Only 1 percent of the population has a Sri Lankan passport, while 3 percent have ID cards as Sri Lankan citizens.

The interim report remarked that Sri Lankan Tamils including those of Indian Origin have been stuck in a legal impasse over the last four decades over acquiring Indian Citizenship and not having an effective opportunity to become self-reliant.

"Without any substantial legal pathways to acquire Indian Citizenship, Sri Lankan Tamils, especially those living in rehabilitation camps across Tamil Nadu remain secluded from the local population," the report stated.

CAA and Sri Lankan Tamil refugees

Sundar (name changed), member of a refugee camp in Madurai, said most of the Tamil refugees are of Indian origin. "The Citizenship Amendment Act stipulates that a person can apply for citizenship if he or she has stayed in India for 5 years. We have lived here for 40 years. What about us?" he rues.

Amongst the Sri Lankan Tamils, there are two groups -- those who are native to Sri Lanka and those who had gone to Sri Lanka from India. "That's why even in our birth certificates, Indian Tamils and Sri Lankan Tamils are mentioned as two categories. All of us are referred to as Indian Tamils. The Sri Lankan natives who came during the war have now returned. Majority of those who are staying here now are Indian Tamils," he said.

"The CAA, which grants citizenship to Hindus from countries like Myanmar, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, denies citizenship to Tamils from Sri Lanka. Tamils in Sri Lanka worship the same Lord Muruga that those who are defined as Hindus in India worship. Both have the same culture. But denying citizenship to them without considering them as Hindus is contradictory," he says.

Tamil politician and TPDK General Secretary K Ramakrishnan echoed the same and added that CAA was "not only against Muslims but also against Tamilians in Sri Lanka". "The government, which says it will accept Hindus from Bangladesh and Pakistan, cannot accept Tamil Eelam from Sri Lanka. Tamil Eelams follow the same culture and worship the same gods as Hindus in Tamil Nadu," Ramakrishnan said.

Committee recommendations

The interim report of the advisory committee formed over Sri Lankan Tamils listed a slew of recommendations as a long-term solution. The report recommended the Tamil Nadu government to compile a list of Sri Lankan Tamils who qualify for Indian citizenship based on the various judgements of the Supreme Court of India and High Court of Madras and have expressed their willingness to remain citizens of India.

It also suggested cancelling or rescinding the letter issued in 1986 by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs which bars Sri Lankan nationals from applying for citizenship. "Sri Lankan Tamils who have sought refuge in Tamil Nadu, India from 1983 onwards, have been brought under ‘illegal migrants’ as per the Citizenship Act, 1955 and this needs to be reviewed and revoked as admission of the Sri Lankan Tamils has been carried out with the concurrence of the Ministry of Home Affairs," the report suggested.

Similar to the central government empowering district magistrates to grant citizenship under the CAA, the committee in the interim report on Tamil refugees also recommended that the Government of Tamil Nadu may seek delegation of power under Section 16 of Citizenship Act in dealing with the citizenship applications of Sri Lankan Tamils.

"The Government of Tamil Nadu may set up nodal units, under the Jurisdictional Refugee Tahsildars and supervised by the Commissionerate of Rehabilitation, to assist Sri Lankan Tamils including Indian Origin Tamils wishing to apply for citizenship with their citizenship applications," the panel recommended in the report.

At the height of the electoral campaign in the country when the Katchatheevu issue has been propped up rigorously, the plight of Tamil refugees hardly finds a mention in the speeches of BJP-led central government leaders. Is it because these 60,000 odd people read as zero when it comes to vote bank politics?

(Reporting by S Srinivasan and Shivakumar)

Read More

  1. Against Basic Structure of Constitution: MK Stalin Says CAA Won't be Implemented in Tamil Nadu
  2. 'Committed to ensuring Tamil refugees in Sri Lanka live with dignity': Rajnath in Chennai; calls for DMK-mukt TN
  3. Excluding Tamil refugees from CAA's purview is discriminatory, DMK tells SC
Last Updated :Apr 10, 2024, 11:01 PM IST
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