As the demonstrations against our rulers in the South gather momentum, the prospects of Tamils in India taking boats to rescue their Tamil compatriots in Sri Lanka seem to gain momentum. Former Vanni District MP Sivasakthi Ananthan says no one needs to tell Tamils when to join the battle against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. There is talk, after a demonstrator was shot dead, that the armed forces may use more force to disperse the crowds. We remember the massacres of Mullaitivu and of the JVP earlier. We do not forget that the military men who were in command responsibility when these massacres occurred, are still very much in power. The thought is chilling.
The financial challenges faced by us, and these ominous signs of militancy have combined to send Tamil refugees to India once again. The trickle that started on 22 March 2022, has today (25 April 2022) reached 75, a number that grows by the day. Surprisingly, the refugees are from well-to-do Jaffna as much as from impoverished areas outside the peninsula.
Recently, seven refugees from the East were apprehended. The three adults among them were let off on Rs. 50,000 bail each but the magistrate refused to go along with charges against the 4 children.
The most poverty seems concentrated around Kumburupitty and Thiriyai in the Trincomalee area. For them escape to India means going North around KKS with high probability of detection by the Sri Lankan Navy. The preferred alternative is to cut across the country to Mannar by land and arrange a cross-over by sea to Tamil Nadu. This entails waiting in some house till the boat is ready. Tip-offs thereupon enhance the probability of their interdiction and being returned to their homes. A group of refugees even after three attempts were caught by the navy during each attempt and returned to their villages.
From 1983, 200,000 Tamils who went to India to this day are in Tamil Nadu without their needs met, and without job opportunities or freedom of movement. As they raise their voices in Tamil Nadu for their needs there, once again Tamils are fleeing from Sri Lanka to Tamil Nadu. However, these 2 lakhs of people after 2009 were pleaded with by the Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena regimes many times to return home, promising them all the comforts they need on their return. As a result of these promises, 10,000-15,000 refugees returned to Sri Lanka.
By the year 2016, a family for Neerveli in Jaffna’s fertile garden heartland fled to India a second time on 22 April 2022. At the end of the war in 2009 they were refugees in Tamil Nadu. They returned home in 2016 and were in Vavuniya but no housing was assigned to them despite the glorious promises. Up to 2020 they had no permanent land. When they requested permanent land as part of a housing scheme, they received from the government only land enough for a latrine. Up to the time they fled again to Tamil Nadu in 2022, this plot enough only in area for a latrine had not been completed in construction. As the shortage of foods became more acute, they judged it better to risk the journey by sea for one night, and they took that decision to flee.
At the same time on the same day a couple also fled from Mannar, the wife being 4 months pregnant and daring the journey. Explained the husband, “Surgeries had been suspended in many hospitals without the requisite drugs. The children’s wards (for example the National Children’s Hospital) are openly asking parents for a lot of financial help. Milk powder for children that was sold last year for Rs. 400 is now Rs. 1000. Even private hospitals lack many medicines. Panadol too is scarce. How can we risk confinement in these circumstances? How can we live wondering how pricy the milk would be in another 6 months with the baby on our hands?”
On the other hand, a cylinder of gas that was Rs. 1260 is now Rs. 5170, while those with money are offering more. A loaf of bread sold at Rs. 65 is presently R. 160. It is not only labourers, farmers and farm workers who are unable to handle the burden of the increased cost of living; it is also government servants who are crushed by the burdens of inflation. An example of that is a civilian worker under the Police Department earning Rs. 60,000 a month. He has also fled with his family to Tamil Nadu.
Regarding this new flow of refugees, we asked the Valikamam East District Secretariat Chairman Thiagarajah for comment. He responded “Without a policy or programme for resettlement, many returnees have not been allocated housing. That people are fleeing from agriculture- and garden- rich areas, is an indication of the lack of planning and policy on the part of government. Farmers and farm workers are meeting terrible hardships. A part of farmer hardship owes to the banning of fertilizer. Likewise, fisherfolk are unable to go out to sea because there is no proper distribution of fuel for their boats. As a result, fish that was sold at Rs. 500, is now going at Rs. 1500. The increased price does not offset the diminished yield of fish faced by fishermen because they cannot go out much to fish without fuel. On the other hand, groceries have gone up 100-150% in price. These are the causes of making people decide to flee Sri Lanka, believing there to be no better option for them.
“The revolt in the South may be absent in the Northeast. But our people who have lived through poverty, inflation and even experienced death and destruction, do not consider these as huge challenges. They manage as best as they can. However, if informed that there will be no naval presence in the seas for a week, we will not be surprised if the situation arises where many people of the Northeast choose to move to Tamil Nadu.”
The Chairman asserted that the reasons for such flight are the injustices we face, and the lack of justice we receive.
We approached TNA MP Tharmalingam Sitharthan to obtain his views on why the Tamil people are again going as refugees to India. He responded that today the Sri Lankan economy has sunk into the lowest abys and as such the question has naturally arisen even among the middle classes whether it is possible to survive in Sri Lanka. Our people regard Tamil Nadu as the one place that can embrace and provide them with sustenance because since 1983 they have the experience from many instances that it is Tamil Nadu that always stood by them and came to their rescue. Moreover, Sitharthan continued, “People who went across by sea and then returned by sea or air, have the experience and knowledge of how to travel and navigate the dangers of crossing over, and these are the very people now first daring to cross the seas to India once again. As our economy sinks, they see no alternative – they prefer refugee life in Tamil Nadu to living in their own Sri Lankan homelands.”
Asked the same question, TNA Parliamentarian Sivagnam Sritharan responded: “In Sri Lanka, there is no guarantee of life for Tamils. If ever the ongoing famine is over, there is the suspicion, even fear, that the Sinhalese would revert to their Mahavamsa policies and politics and disappear not only our culture, but us too. Tamils are losing their unique identity. These lead to the idea that it is better to escape at least with our lives. Earlier we fled in fear of Sinhalese guns and bombs. Now in these changed circumstances we run with faith in our umbilically connected brethren in Tamil Nadu.”
A 39-year old lady attempted to cross over to India last week. She was apprehended by the navy and returned to her home. Her opinion was expressed thus: “To this day no Tamil party or grouping in Sri Lanka has put forward any creative idea for a permanent solution to our perennial life-threatening problems. Even now there is no faith in any of these Tamil political entities that they would offer a solution or act to create one. It is this loss of faith in the system that made me risk all to flee.”
The foregoing is the opinion of Tamils living in Sri Lanka. For an alternative view we spoke to Subramaniam Koneswaran who successfully fled from his home in Mullaitivu and has been living in a refugee camp in Mandapam for a month. He is elated. Said he, “From the day we came to Tamil Nadu, we do not know the price of anything. This is because all three meals are provided for us. Even our tea is served on time. We are given our medicines. Our students in camp who have no worries about their meals, now focus on their studies.”
Even though we talk about we Tamils having a uterine connection to Tamil Nadu and of our Tamil Motherland, those of us who crossed over to India have no permission to this day to go to a third country, and no opportunities for medical studies (unlike those who go on student visas) or government jobs. They remain second class citizens in India. At the same time, beyond being Sri Lankan Tamils, those who went a generation back and live with their own families in Tamil Nadu say with great sadness that they we are still viewed as quaint curiosities.
People who flee their own homes to strange lands despite the shared culture, must be truly desperate. Yet, in troubled times people through their shared humanity develop a oneness. One of us described the plight of these people to select friends in the US who felt for their brethren suffering in Sri Lanka and willingly gave money to help them stay on in in the North-east despite their hardships.
It is not easy money for the American Tamils who were asked, though many of us mistakenly think it is easy money for them. They came together, Christian and Hindu, to distribute grocery packs of Rs. 7000 each regardless of the recipients’ religion. Young men, one of them a former member of the LTTE from Thiriyai, volunteered with other students of his time to identify suitable recipient families with children. A lawyer, Mohan Nagarajah of the Centre for Justice and Change in Trincomalee, helped identify a few women who are sole heads of their homes to set them up in self-sustaining work with Rs. 70,000 each. We were particularly thrilled that two young people who had started their jobs in America only in January gave $5000 each, making us think of increasing the value of the grocery packs or widening the distribution. Such are the unexpected bonds across continents discovered and made in troubled times.