They are pursuing the elusive dream of a safe and peaceful life. Over 80 Sri Lankan Tamilians, including children and infants, took boats and landed in Tamil Nadu in recent months to flee Sri Lanka’s dire economic situation, but also to pursue an elusive dream — a secure, peaceful life.
According to local organizations working with refugees and returnees in northern Sri Lanka, the majority of those leaving the northern Jaffna and Mannar districts of Sri Lanka and paying lakhs to be put on a boat to Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu had only recently returned to the island.
“In recent years, many families have returned after spending years or decades in Tamil Nadu refugee camps, seeking to build a fresh life here.” However, post-war reconstruction has been tragically insufficient, with few jobs and little progress. “The bleak reality here makes families despair, especially during the crisis,” says P. Nagenthiran, a coordinator with Forum for Returnees, a non-profit that supports families with resettling after they return.
In the 1980s and 1990s, thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils fled the island’s civil war and sought refuge in Tamil Nadu.
Others with the means traveled as far as Europe and Canada. During the civil war, civilians were caught in the crossfire between the military and the rebel Tigers. Some were subjected to the brutal violence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), which was stationed in Sri Lanka between 1987 and 1990.
During the height of the war, indiscriminate shelling in the north and east meant families lost loved ones, homes, and belongings — all while being constantly displaced from one temporary shelter to another with only hopes, not assurances, of safety.
Because of Tamil Nadu’s sympathy for the Tamil Tigers, or LTTE, who were leading the armed struggle against the oppressive Sri Lankan state, various governments took in and housed thousands of refugees in specially set up camps. When the civil war eased up, some families attempted to return. The number increased after the war ended in May 2009, when Sri Lankan forces defeated the LTTE. But they might not have returned to peace.
S. Nadesalingam, 65, has lived in Tamil Nadu for the past 35 years. He attempted to return twice before finally succeeding in 2019.”I lived there from 1985 to 1987, again from 1990 to 1994, and then from 1996 till I returned in 2019.” “So many individuals who wish to return seek my help since I’ve done it so many times,” he says from his new home in the Kilinochchi region.
He observes that life in Tamil Nadu is relatively safe for refugees.”The family can get by on the government dole and use the refugee camp’s amenities even if you don’t have a job.” The majority of people are content with their lives, but they must wear the refugee label.”
There are approximately one lakh refugees in Tamil Nadu, some of whom were actively considering returning prior to the crisis. It is the “refugee tag” that prompts some to consider returning to their homeland, where they can live on land that is still not military-held, possibly take up a job, and build a life free of fear.
Mr. Nadesalingam claims, echoing a widely held view of “failed reconstruction” in the north and east that has enslaved many families.”These groups and officials, however, have all failed. People who return feel abandoned. As a result of the crisis, they are much more negative about their prospects.”
Each family’s reasons for leaving their village may differ. According to locals, while the majority appear to be returnees, there are some who are not. Many are from the “lower-middle and middle classes,” according to community workers. Furthermore, there are administrative challenges to filing asylum claims because they are fleeing economic adversity rather than a war this time.
Meanwhile, Indian authorities have raised “security concerns” and increased surveillance along Tamil Nadu’s coast to deter “intrusions.”
Many Tamil families are still chasing the dream of a secure life, despite acute shortages and long-term deprivation.