Editor’s Note: A version of this speech was delivered by the author at the UNHCR Annual Consultations with NGOs, held from June 14-16 at the International Conference Centre in Geneva
“O our motherland, bid us a farewell
We buried our smiles in our lips
We buried our life in our bodies
We are making a procession like empty skeletons….”
A Tamil Poet on refugees
This was the way many Sri Lankans, including my family and I, felt when we left our homeland to seek asylum in India.
Let me introduce myself. I am Mayuran. My refugee family number in India was 144. When I was just four years old, I traveled to India in a boat as a refugee. My family was happy to reach the shores of India alive and hoped to return to Sri Lanka as soon as possible. However, it took us 25 years to get back to our country. Yes, I lived 25 years of my life in India as a stateless refugee. The story of refugee life in a camp, being stripped of fundamental rights is one of trauma, pain, agony and despair. Nevertheless, I have been able to take control of my uncertain future with the support of my host government and my own community and have become a successful refugee returnee and a resourceful individual. I feel that my journey is a positive story and hope it will inspire many refugees aspiring to return to their homeland.
I returned to my motherland in April 2015. Understanding the importance of ensuring the safe and dignified reintegration of refugee returnees to Sri Lanka, who have been displaced in and outside the country for nearly three decades, I am now associated with OfERR (Ceylon) as a Community Social Worker.
The three decade-long armed conflict and civil war forced about 1 million Sri Lankans, mostly Tamils from the Northern and Eastern parts of Sri Lanka, to leave the country and seek refuge, in India and other countries.
Of this number, about one third, who were particularly vulnerable as they were unable to afford travel to European countries, sought asylum in India by boat. Sri Lankan Tamil refugees have lived in camps in India since 1983 with welfare assistance of the Government of India. Though India is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, we have been able to survive the hardships of refugee life, thanks to the country’s self-evolved humanitarian welfare measures.
In our determination to take control of an uncertain future, we, living in the camps of Tamil Nadu, have always prioritised returning to our homeland. In order to achieve this, we have consistently emphasised the importance of capacity building. Ever since the war ended in Sri Lanka in 2009, we have been contemplating our own future. We recognised that returning to our homeland would be one of the best durable solutions, but had a range of concerns. Throughout our two to three decades of refugee life, our minds were deeply attached to our homeland and we always dreamed to return and restart life with freedom and dignity.
Now, eight years have passed. Over 12,000 refugees have returned to Sri Lanka and have been able to restart their lives, whereas the vast majority of the refugees still remaining in the camps continue to have reservations. As these Sri Lankans, who fled persecution, war, and violence, return to their homeland, they face multiple challenges before and after return.
There are events in history that bring about extraordinary changes for the better. One such memorable event would be the voluntary return of the refugees to Sri Lanka. Voluntary repatriation has long been seen as the best long-term solution to forced displacement and one that would benefit the greatest number of refugees. While there is more to be done in the direction of reconciliation and integration, I believe that encouraging the refugees to return will further strengthen the process of peace, reconciliation and integration.
There is a voluntary repatriation program by UNHCR in place to assist the refugees returning to their homeland. However, the support provided under this program is not sufficient as refugees who return to their homeland need to reintegrate back to their places of origin. The return itself is a kind of uprooting and the process should be properly resourced.
Though the Government of Sri Lanka endorses an open policy to welcome the refugee returnees from India and other countries, there are key gaps in the support services that recognise them as legal citizens of the country. The people born in the refugee camps are burdened with penalties and late registration charges that multiplies the vulnerability of displacement. The lack of resources with the Government of Sri Lanka and the absence of a national policy on refugee returnees have been a major hurdle in extending holistic support for the returnees.
Rehabilitation assistance with land, housing, livelihood, dry rations and basic subsistence for refugee returnees from the State is minimal. Hence the vast majority face multiple challenges to reintegrate back in their places of origin and that acts as a dissuading factor to thwart the hopes of more than 100,000 refugees living in India to find a durable solution.
Political action is required now to facilitate refugees to voluntarily choose the option of returning to Sri Lanka. Inaction will continue the agony of refugee life in a protracted situation. We underline the importance of ending refugee status as early as possible with minimum inconvenience to all concerned. An empathetic humanitarian approach is essential as the protracted refugee situation of Sri Lankan Tamils is a complex one and requires smart handling.
Having spent about three decades of our lives in another country, we can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. Ever since the war ended in Sri Lanka in 2009, we have contemplated ending our protracted refugee situation and returning to our land of origin to live with freedom and dignity. The uncertainties of camp life are difficult to navigate and survive.
Therefore, it is the plea of Sri Lankan Tamils that the discussion among the governments of India and Sri Lanka should progress and eventually lead to a Memorandum of Understanding that would facilitate the provision of an implementation mechanism, including a comprehensive funding and administrative framework to help end the refugee status of Sri Lankan Tamil Refugees in India.
I therefore respectfully request that provisions ensuring the inalienable right of refugees to return to their country and guaranteeing a life in safety and dignity, should be enshrined and for the UNHCR and the international community to intervene and help ensure the safety, dignity and well-being of refugees returning to Sri Lanka.