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Lankan refugees pay back their debt to India

Number of refugees sheltering in India, having fled civil war back home, are working to better lives in host nation.

Last Modified: 16 Oct 2013 12:36
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Volunteers interact with children of Sonavanthottam hamlet in Tamil Nadu [V Prem Shanker/ Al Jazeera]

G Amarnath, a Sri Lankan refugee living in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, is busy sorting out thousands of shoes to be distributed among poor Indian children.

Having arrived in India twenty-five years ago as a child after fleeing the civil war in his home country, he has now chosen to serve the people of his host nation.

Amarnath along with many of his fellow refugees are part of the Organisation for Eelam Refugee Rehabilitation in India (OfERR), a non-government organisation (NGO) serving the poor, including refugees.

The 30-year-old with the help of a young team, comprising mainly refugees from Sri Lanka, finishes the shoe packing as they head to Sonavanthottam, a backward Dalit hamlet about a six-hour-long drive from the provincial capital, Chennai.

After reaching Sonavanthottam, he talks to chidren in Tamil language, with his accent blending flawlessly. Neither the children of this village nor their families look at him as a refugee from a different country. They now see him as one among them.

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Two women organisers, who have been trained by Amarnath's team for leadership and community development, had assembled about 50 children for the shoe distribution event.

One of the two women, Jaya Delsi had even recently joined a political party and won local elections to become the councillor of the area.

She stammers, but her speech impediment seems minor, compared to the social stigma she has had to overcome as a Dalit (former untouchables) and the hurdles on her path towards empowerment.

"I was just another Dalit girl who was not allowed to step out of home some years ago. It is after these refugees who counselled my family that I got an opportunity to attend various training programmes they had organised. It is their efforts that has made me what I am," Delsi said.

Paucity of funds

Amarnath and his colleague Mayuran and Kandeepan then head to another village Sangenthi, where an HIV-positive woman asks them why their office in the village was recently closed down.

The woman, whose daughter was sponsored by the NGO, wants the office reopened.

"My daughter has just one more year to go to finish her course in teacher’s training. My husband, who gave me this dreaded disease, is dead and gone. The funds given by these Lankan refugees helped me put her in school, college and eventually this training to be a teacher. I hope they stay just a while more to help me out," the woman says.

But Amarnath and his team had little to offer, as a paucity of funds at OfERR had forced them to close down their office in the area set up to educate, train and counsel people of these villages.

They had been working among the Lankan refugees in the 110 camps housing about 67,000 refugees across Tamil Nadu, but the turning point came when a deadly tsunami hit the southern Indian state in 2004.

OfERR’s founder Chandrahasan rushed to his office in the heart of Chennai to see his staff members, who were all refugees, after the disaster struck.

"I remember asking them that morning, 'what are you going to do at this hour of grief that has stricken the people that have helped us find our home? Isn’t this the time we put to use all our expertise in handling disasters - personal and natural? Shouldn’t we be holding the hands of those who have held ours thus far?'," Chandrahasan recalls asking his team members, most of whom had escaped from Sri Lanka many years ago.

Crucial partner

They all headed to Nagapattinam - one of the worst affected districts - not to work for refugees, but to help people of their host nation - victims of the tsunami.

"When we set up temporary offices in Nagapattinam, Cuddalore and Kanyakumari districts and eventually ended up staying with these families that were torn apart by the tsunami, the villagers understood the expertise we were bringing to them," Natesalingam, now a retired staff of OfERR, recounts his experience.

Children of Sonavanthottam village trying out their new shoes. About 100,000 free shoes are being distributed by Oranisation for Eelam Refugee Rehabilitation across Tamil Nadu, India. [V Prem Shanker/ Al Jazeera]

"They knew that we withstood and dealt with similar trauma all these years. We had become a crucial partner in the rebuilding process of the tsunami affected families here," he said.

Amarnath has vague memories of packing and leaving for India with his family in 1988 from their home in Kandy, Sri Lanka, as the the ethnic clashes between Tamil minority and Sinhalese got worse.

He grew up at the refugee camp in Tamil Nadu, but Amarnath was among the few lucky ones who got admission in a state government-run college and graduated in mathematics.

But that did not help much as he could not work for any private organisation because he had to report to his camp regularly and the gvernment jobs were meant for Indian citizens only.

The only job option open to him was as a daily wager, and that is when he decided to work full time for the OfERR.

But even today, Amarnath like other Lankan refugees has to go back to his camp whenever there is a roll-call to confirm his presence in the country. This entitles him to a small dole that is given out to refugees by the Indian government.

Changing attitude

The likes of Amarnath have helped to earn goodwill for the Lankan refugees in India and the attitude towards them has now dramatically changed for the better. 

It is a far cry from the days when they were viewed with animosity in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, carried out by Lankan Tiger rebels.

Women volunteers have been trained in community development,
leadership and various vocational skills by the Sri Lankan refugees. [V Prem Shanker/ Al Jazeera]

"Soon after the Rajiv assassination the then state government wanted to send all of them back to Sri Lanka," Professor V Suryanarayan, the former director of Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Madras, says. "But that situation has changed. The attitude of the authorities in India now is to allow them to stay as long as they want to."

The question however, is - do they all stay out of trouble? There still are reports of stray crime incidents involving Lankan refugees in Tamil Nadu, "But such incidents have reduced to a large extent," says Suryanarayanan.

Crimes involving Sri Lankan refugees in Tamil Nadu are handled by a special police division called the Q Branch.

The officer in-charge of the Q Branch, K Bhavaneeshwari, was reluctant to share details about crime figures involving Lankan refugees.

But informed sources say that the Q Branch does track their movements and meticulously mantains a dossier on their activities.

There is, however, increasing trust and some refugees now have the freedom of long-distance travel within the state.

Refugee status

Stranded in India and with little hopes of returning, refugees like Amarnath have developed strong bonds with people of their host nation.

Decades after the first Sri Lankan refugees arrived on the Indian shores, India and Sri Lanka are yet to sign any Memorandum of Understanding with regards to the influx, sheltering or repatriation of refugees.

Children of Sonavanthottam are all smiles after receiving their pair of free shoes [V Prem Shanker/ Al Jazeera]

K Deenabandhu, formerly Principal Secretary and Commissioner of Rehabilitation and Welfare of Non-Resident Tamils, says a tripartite agreement between India, Sri Lanka and UNHCR was mooted earlier, but it is still work in progress.

"According to the Indian citizen’s law, children born in India or married to Indians are eligible for citizenship, but this has somehow not worked out for the Lankan refugees," says Deenabandhu.

Meanwhile, fresh after his return from Northern Sri Lanka, OfeRR’s founder Chandrahasan says that the two governments (India and Sri Lanka) could consider an arrangement similar to the OCI (Overseas Citizen of India).

This would allow unrestricted movement of refugees for a limited time period - giving people like Amarnath a hope to find an identity in his motherland and to keep building on the strong ties in the country he grew up.

Such a memorandum of understanding is yet to be inked.

Meanwhile, Amarnath is working hard to help his host nation and its people.

Follow V Prem Shanker on Twitter: @premshanker

This feature is a part of our ongoing special India coverage. To read more stories click here.

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Al Jazeera
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