Five years after war, Sri Lanka refugees reluctant to leave India-survey

by Nita Bhalla | @nitabhalla | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 29 October 2014 08:55 GMT

In a 2011 file photo, an ethnic minority Tamil woman waits to go to her native village after arriving from India on a passenger ferry at a Colombo port. According to the U.N., she is among the first group of 37 refugees who returned to the island nation after escaping to India 20 years ago due to the civil war between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

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Around 100,000 refugees remain in India - many living in poor conditions with restricted freedom of movement

NEW DELHI, Oct 29 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Nearly 70 percent of refugees who fled to India during Sri Lanka's civil war prefer to stay rather than return, even though the conflict in their homeland has ended, according to a survey by a university in Mumbai.

More than 130,000 Sri Lankans are estimated to have sought refuge in southern India during the 26-year conflict between separatist Tamil Tiger rebels and government forces.

Since the war ended in May 2009, Sri Lanka has pumped $6 billion into development of the former war zone in the counltry's north, and some refugees have left India to return home.

Yet around 100,000 refugees remain in India - many living in poor conditions with restricted freedom of movement in 111 government-run camps across Tamil Nadu state.

The survey by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) found that 67 percent of the 368 respondents wanted to stay in India, citing insecurity and a lack of jobs as primary factors for not returning home.

"When the declaration on the end of war was announced in 2009, it was expected that more people would go back", said the study titled "Exploring Durable Solutions for Sri Lankan Tamil Refugees in India".

However, many refugees have been deterred by the ongoing instability and military presence, as well as a failure to address minority rights, it said.

The study, conducted jointly with the charity ADRA India and the Danish Refugee Council, said 60 percent of those polled cited safety and peace in Sri Lanka as concerns, while the other 40 percent pointed to basic amenities and livelihood opportunities.

The war killed tens of thousands of people and displaced hundreds of thousands more over the years. Many fled in fishing boats from northern areas such as Jaffna, across the Palk Straits to Tamil Nadu where they were granted refuge by India.

Some 65,000 Tamil refugees have lived more than two decades in the camps, where the Indian government has provided basic services such as free education, electricity, shelter and sanitation facilities.

Over the years, children have been born in the camps, refugees have married one another and many have gained education qualifications and vocational skills in India.

But some camps are cramped, while others have dilapidated housing and are far from areas offering basic services. The refugees also lack access to employment in the formal job sector and face restricted freedom of movement.

The report noted that while India has hosted refugees from neighbouring countries over the years, it has no law in place to define refugees. As a result, refugees have no legal status and are treated on an ad hoc basis by authorities.

Uncertainty "restricts them from thinking beyond today", causing stress that puts them at risk of suicide, substance abuse, domestic violence and school drop-out, the report said.

The authors called on India, Sri Lanka and stakeholders such as the United Nations to find a durable solution for the refugees, who have been living in limbo for more than 20 years.

(Reporting by Nita Bhalla, editing by Alisa Tang)

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