Colombo, September 5: The appointment of a high-level committee of officials to facilitate the repatriation of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees from India is a major breakthrough on this ticklish and long-standing issue.
The committee, announced on Monday by Saman Ekanayake, Secretary to the Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe, will be headed by Ms. Chandima Wickramasinghe, Additional Secretary to the President. Other members of the high-powered committee are: the Controller General of Immigration and Emigration, a senior official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a senior official of the Registrar General’s Department and a senior official of the Ministry of Justice.
That this committee is headed by an Additional Secretary to the President testifies to the importance the Wickremesinghe regime attaches to the question of the return of refugees from India to Sri Lanka.
The decision to form such a committee was reached during a discussion held on Monday at the President’s Office under the chairmanship of the President’s Secretary Saman Ekanayake. It took place at the request of the Organization for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation (OfERR). S.C. Chandrahasan, Founder of OfERR and his colleague S. Sooriyakumari, the Secretary of Public Administration, officials of the Ministry of External Affairs, officials of the Ministry of Justice, officials of the Immigration and Emigration Department, and officials of the Registrar General’s Department participated in the meeting.
According to OfERR, 58,000 Sri Lankans are currently residing in Tamil Nadu as refugees, and 3,800 of them are ready to return to Sri Lanka at present.
If a functioning structure is set up to facilitate their return and rehabilitation, and if that structure is not ad-hoc in nature, more refugees will return even in the midst of the current economic crisis in Sri Lanka, OfERR says. And the government of India might help with some funds if the Sri Lankan government were to put in a request, OfERR believes.
Speaking to this correspondent, Chandrahasan said that he welcomes the formation of the committee headed by an Additional Secretary to the President because it indicates the high importance that the current government is giving to this issue. “That all the other members are also high officials from stake-holder departments means that matters relating to repatriation will receive hands-on treatment at the decision-making level. It is also noteworthy that the commission’s office will be located in the Presidential Secretariat (the highest seat of government), ” Chandrahasan said.
He further said that this arrangement directly addresses one of OfERR’s key requests, namely, the institution of a structured hands-on approach needed to enhance the decision-making and implementing mechanism.
The chief of OfERR said that he would like any structure set up now to continue as a statutory body, which will not be dissolved when governments change. The structure set up earlier in 2016, when Wickremesinghe was Prime Minister, ceased to exist after a change in the government, Chandrahasan pointed out. In this context, he pleaded that the issue of the refugees should not be politicized but seen only as a humanitarian one. Refugees are people who had fled from the war zone. Being involuntary emigrants, they have a right to come back, he argued.
The intention to move back to Sri Lanka shows the refugees’ confidence in Sri Lanka’s ability to recover from the current economic crisis. Some observers felt that facilitating the return of people who had fled during the 30-year Sri Lankan war, would also help the Wickemesinghe government face criticisms of its human rights record at the September session of the UNHRC in Geneva.
In a background paper on the return of the refugees from India, OfERR said that at the moment 58,493 Sri Lankan refugees are living in 107 camps in Tamil Nadu, and another 30,000 or more live outside the camps in private accommodation. From 2009 to date, 5863 refugee families with 16,084 members had returned Sri Lanka.
Through 17 consultations with the refugees, OfERR had prepared a proposal and submitted it to the Governments of India and Sri Lanka on facilitating the refugees’ return. Subsequently, a list of refugees who wanted to return immediately was submitted to the Government of India, and that was, in turn, handed over to the Government of Sri Lanka. Those willing to return wanted to do so by ship/ferry rather than air so that they could bring all their belongings.
In 2016, a Steering Committee was formed under the direction of the then Minister for Rehabilitation and Resettlement D.M.Swaminathan. On 17th May 2016, the Committee met under the leadership of the Secretary to the Resettlement Ministry Sivagnanasothy. The Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Defense, Law & Order, Education, the University Grants Commission, Department of Immigration and Emigration, UNHCR, REPPIA, and OfERR (Ceylon) attended the meeting.
At this meeting, OfERR presented the issues and challenges faced by the refugees in accessing consular services in India and those faced by returnees in Sri Lanka. OfERR also highlighted issues relating to children born to Sri Lankan refugees in India. It appealed for a structured and phased return of the refugees and their resettlement in their places of origin. It also sought a policy framework to enable governmental and non-governmental service providers to serve the returnees better.
Due to various reasons, the committee could not do much, OfERR says. However, in February 2019, Sumith Nakandala, who was Additional Secretary Bilateral Affairs in the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry, organized a visit of Lankan officials to the Sri Lankan Consulate in Chennai to understand the difficulties refugees faced in getting essential documents. The group comprising officials from the Department of Immigration and Emigration, the Registrar General’s office, and the Consular division of the Foreign Ministry met more than 165 refugees. They prepared a document that was to be submitted to the cabinet. But unfortunately, no action was taken due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the change of Government.
Sri Lankan Tamil refugees have lived in camps in Tamil Nadu since 1983. Depending on the situation in Sri Lanka they have moved back and forth. OfERR says. Since 1991 refugees have lived in the camps of Tamil Nadu with the assistance of the Government of India (GoI) and the Government of Tamil Nadu (GoTN). During their stay in India, they have been able to access health and educational facilities, As a result, there are thousands of graduates, diploma holders and skilled workers.
After the civil war came to an end in May 2009, refugees have been contemplating returning to Sri Lanka if ground conditions are suitable. Over 8,000 refugees have returned to Sri Lanka and have been able to restart their lives. But still, the vast majority remain in camps wondering what to do.
In this context, OfERR conducted seventeen rounds of discussions with refugees from all the 110 camps located in 25 districts in Tamil Nadu over a period of nine months. The refugees discussed a range of options, including staying put in Tamil Nadu, emigrating to a third country, and returning to Sri Lanka.
On the question of returning to Sri Lanka, the refugees expressed many concerns. The issues that bothered them related to land and housing, validation of Indian documents, Sri Lankan documentation, recognition of Indian educational qualifications, eligibility for Sri Lankan governmental welfare schemes, and last but not the least, their security. Refugees, who were earlier part of militant groups, were particularly concerned and wanted a general amnesty.