‘After 30 Years, We’re Still Refugees?’ Sri Lankan Tamils on CAB

Sri Lankan Tamils speak on why they feel betrayed by the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill.

4 min read

Video Editor: Sandeep Suman

“The pain of being a refugee for over thirty years can be understood only by someone who has been a refugee for that long. To say, ‘We’re not forcing anyone to leave’ is just another way of saying, ‘You can remain refugees for however long you want.’”
Nataraja Saravanan, Refugee

The passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill on 11 December completes the legislative procedure for giving Indian citizenship to non-Muslim migrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. The Bill has also excluded Sri Lankan Tamils, among many other refugees and migrants across India.

Over one lakh Sri Lankan Tamils live as refugees across Tamil Nadu. Most of them arrived in the 1990s, and have remained refugees, or in some cases, 'illegal immigrants', for over thirty years.

Here then are some of the voices of Sri Lankan Tamils from across the state. They narrate the story of how they came to India's shores, why their exclusion from the CAB was a huge blow, and how Sri Lankan Tamils of Indian origin have been dealt the biggest blow.

The narrative of this story will be driven by the voices of Sri Lankan refugees, Sri Lankan Tamils and Sri Lankan Tamil refugees of Indian origin.

The Sri Lankan Refugee Scenario in Tamil Nadu

Sri Lankan Tamil children at a refugee camp.
(Photo Courtesy:
“There are 106 camps presently in Tamil Nadu... 60,000 people are residing inside the camps. At the same time, 30,000 people are residing outside the camps after registering their names at the local police station as refugees.”
Sundarapandi, Sri Lankan Tamil.
“We have accepted this tough life of a refugee not because of the concessions and government doles. From my forefathers, up to my generation, we were oppressed and treated worse than second-rate citizens in Sri Lanka. We broke this cycle and returned to our motherland (India).”
Vijayasingam, Refugee

Refugee, or Illegal Immigrant?

“For thirty years, I have been given documents concessions and doles. How then can I be an illegal immigrant? This is what is surprising. We thought we were only refugees but were told that as illegal immigrants we cannot demand the right to citizenship, in a judgment by the Madurai High Court in June 2018. That’s when we came to know we were illegal immigrants. Now, the same sentiment is echoed in Parliament, through the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill.”
Nataraja Saravanan, Refugee

How It All Began

The Black July riots of 1983.
(Photo courtesy:
“In 1983, because of the July Tamil riots, they came here. Most of them returned back. In 1990, most of the people came. Nearly 2 lakh people came as refugees, seeking asylum. Half of them have returned.”
Sundarapandi, Sri Lankan Tamil
“Due to the sudden influx of people who arrived by boat, their documents could not be checked properly. The TN government intimated the issue to the Centre. The Centre then directed the state to receive everyone, and decide about their citizenship later. This is what we have heard. And on this basis, no one was given citizenship.”
Nataraja Saravanan, Refugee
“To expect those who fled their country seeking protection to come with documents, I do not know how right this attitude is.”
Vijayasingam, Refugee

Neither Here, Nor There

“The Sri Lankan Tamils who came to India between ‘77 and 2009 neither received Indian citizenship nor could they avail Sri Lankan citizenship that was offered to Tamils of Indian origin in Sri Lanka twice (2009 & 2011). Now, those who lost out on both these counts are in the refugee camps. An independent survey places the number of such people at about 28,000.”
Nataraja Saravanan, Refugee

Some 25,000 children have been born in India in the camps. While they are born in India, they are currently stateless. They are neither citizens of India, nor of Sri Lanka. In part, this is because the marriages within the camps were not registered anywhere.

“Including the 28,000 people and their children,  around 35,000 to 40,000 Sri Lankan Tamils of Indian origin are currently in refugee camps here (Tamil Nadu). Such people have a natural right to ask for the right to citizenship in India.”
Nataraja Saravanan, Refugee

Limited Options

Refugees being handed rations at the camp.
(Photo Courtesy:
“We cannot write NEET here. No (refugee) child who lives here can dream of becoming a policeman or a tehsildar, or aspire to any government job.”
Nataraja Saravanan, Refugee

Refugees in camps around Tamil Nadu are required to sign in and out of the camp each day. While the government provides doles, rations and concessions, they are not allowed to own property worth more than Rs 20,000.

Their refugee status also puts them at a disadvantage, in their interactions with the society. Nevertheless, most Sri Lankan Tamils across refugee camps in Tamil Nadu prefer to remain in India.

“If you put me in another place I cannot survive. If I go to Sri Lanka, I cannot survive. I was not raised in that situation. I have lived as an Indian in India. For thirty years I have lived here.”
Krishnan, Refugee

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