Country of origin background
For the past 20 years Sri Lanka has been embroiled in conflict between the Sri Lankan army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) who are fighting for independence for the minority Tamil population. The conflict has left as many as 70,000 people dead and one million people displaced. Tamils from Sri Lanka have been fleeing their home country for India since 1983 when the conflict began. There are no signs of the conflict abating in the immediate future. The armed conflict has escalated since the beginning of 2006 and in March 2007, after four years of negotiations, the peace process between the warring factions officially collapsed.
Reason for flight
The majority of the fighting in Sri Lanka occurs in the northern and eastern areas of the country. The population in these areas is exposed daily to the risks of air strikes, bomb blasts and landmines and many leave their homes in search of safety. In addition, many are forced to flee the country in order to escape torture, rape and disappearances perpetrated by the security forces. The warring parties are Buddhist Sinhalese and Tamil Hindus. The ethnic dimension to the conflict leads the civilian Tamil population to seek refuge in India.
The majority of individuals fleeing the Sri Lankan conflict for India arrive by boat; risking a dangerous journey across the Palk Strait. In June 2007 it was estimated that approximately 18,000 Tamils had undertaken this journey to Tamil Nadu in the previous 18 months. On arrival they are accommodated in the main refugee camp near Rameswaram, 600km south of Chennai, before being sent to camps in other parts of Tamil Nadu. On arrival, refugees are questioned by Indian police in order to establish their identities and to discover whether they have links to the Tamil Tigers, which is an illegal organization in India.
The legal status of Sri Lankan refugees in India is officially governed by the Foreigner’s Act 1946 and India’s Citizenship Act 1955 which defines all non-citizens who enter without visas to be illegal migrants, with no exception for refugees or asylum seekers. Sri Lankans who are considered to be a threat to national security are deemed to be militants and detained in ‘special camps’ in Chenglepet or Velloreand. Nonetheless, in general the Government of India recognizes Sri Lankans fleeing violence at home to be refugees and accordingly grants them protection.
Sri Lankan refugees remain largely in Tamil Nadu and live in refugee camps scattered across the state. At present, more than 72,000 thousand Sri Lankan refugees live in over 120 camps in Tamil Nadu. In addition to this, a further 30,000 Sri Lankans are living outside the government camps. Those that choose to live outside must register with the local police and visit the camps on a fortnightly basis to register their attendance.
Refugees living within the government camps are housed in warehouses or in temporary shelters and are subject to an evening curfew at 7 p.m. Each adult refugee receives a small monthly stipend. Though not officially permitted to work in India, the refugees worked as unskilled labour in the informal sector to supplement their incomes. The Indian Government provides basic medical care and education for school-age Sri Lankan children as well as subsidized food grain for the camps’ inhabitants. Despite these provisions, conditions in the camps are generally poor with insufficient health and sanitary facilities available for the refugee population.