Desperate lives inside camps:Tales of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees

Typically, refugee camps are supposed to be temporary living settlements for the displaced. Sri Lankan tamils who fled the country due to the violence of the war, thought they would be able to return when problems are solved and a peaceful, free atmosphere is created in their motherland. Thus far, they have been living in refugee camps for more than 27 years. Their temporary settlements have become permanent.


Part 2
By Piyumi Fonseka, Reporting from Chennai, Tamil Nadu
Photographs by Shyam Gowtham and Steni Simon

Typically, refugee camps are supposed to be temporary living settlements for the displaced. Sri Lankan tamils who fled the country due to the violence of the war, thought they would be able to return when problems are solved and a peaceful, free atmosphere is created in their motherland. Thus far, they have been living in refugee camps for more than 27 years. Their temporary settlements have become permanent.

“Api mehe thani wela (we are isolated here)”, fourty nine year old Nimala, a Sri Lankan refugee at Gummidipoondi camp, Chennai told the Daily Mirror.

The definition of a “refugee” as in the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, is an individual who — owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable or unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

Despite Tamil Nadu government under the directions of Indian Central government which had not signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, provided Sri Lankan refugees with immediate needs when they migrated to the state starting from 1980s till the last phase of the war, the reality of life in refugee camps is sorrowful and desperate.


Inside the Gummidipoondi camp, there are close to 900 young generation who are supposed to be obtaining education. Mathews (46), a father of two said refugee children are allowed to obtain education, only till 10th standard (grade 10).

“Following the assassination of Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, admission of our refugee children to all schools was suspended by then Tamil Nadu government.

But, late in 1993, our children were permitted to study up to Standard 12 in schools in Tamil Nadu. The law is actually not being practised. The reality is our children are denied education after 10th standard,” he said.

Refugees used to live in camps with very poor conditions. As they found casual jobs, they tried to lift the status of their settlements.

Some parents decide to let their children to complete higher education at private institutes. However, they are not given any financial support by the government. Either they will do so or give up hopes because they are unable to afford private education.

However, it is praiseworthy to see how some Sri Lankan refugee parents are working hard to earn money in order to finance their children’s education.

Mathews’s only daughter twenty three year old Maya is currently pursuing her MBA in a private college Gummidipoondi. Even though she is studying, she has no hope for a government job as they are not allowed.

Denial to the access to education has more affected boys than girls.  Making the situation of young generation of Sri Lankan Tamil refugee families even worse is the fact that, boys who are compelled to stop education at 10th standard are getting addicted to drugs, mainly Cannabis. The situation is same in all other Sri Lankan Tamil refugee camps in the state. When we were walking around the Gummidpoondi camp, groups of youths were seen playing Omi. Parents worry about their inability to offer a future to their children since the future of an entire generation is at stake.

Freedom of Movement
Sri Lankan refugees who are governed by rules and regulations of  1946 Foreigners Act have no social or political rights.

“We used to have comfortable lives in our country before the war began. But, now we are not having normal lives here in camps. We can leave the camp only if we get permission from the camp authorities. We are allowed to go in the morning and must return before the evening on the same day,” mother of one, Jothika said.

According to Jothika, Sri Lankan refugees who want to go outside for more than one day must seek permission in written from the camp officer and it usually takes a few days.

Fifty two year old Kennedy also said they lack of freedom inside camps. “We have no freedom here. We are treated as outsiders in India. We are neither here nor there. We are not saying here willingly,” he said.

He said the feeling of living in motherland can not be found by living anywhere else in the world.


As a result of the restrictions on freedom of movement of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees, they face many difficulties in finding a job.

They came to India without any document to show their identity. Even the ones who have studied upto secondary level are unable to show their potential with documental evidence, in finding a job in Tamil Nadu.

They can find only jobs that also recruit them on a daily basis. A survery carried out by the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) stated that as Sri Lankan refugees are permitted to work in the day time, many refugees reportedly work on the local railway, while others perform bricklaying and painting.

Fourty three year old Samuwel born in Awissawella is a security guard in a private institution in Gummidipoondi town. He said men must find a job to earn money as living with minimal financial support given by the Tamil Nadu government is very difficult.

“The government have issued refugee identity cards for each of us. Bread winners of families are given Rs. 1000 per month. Those above 18 of age get monthly cash support of Rs. 750 while kids are getting Rs. 300. The amount of money paid to us has not been revised despite the rising cost of living. We can’t live even one week with these amounts. That is why we had to look for jobs,” Samuwel said.

Sabu, another breadwinner of a seven member family, said it is very difficult to obtain permission from the authorities to work outside camps. He is doing painting works inside the camp.

“If you have money, you can bribe officers here and get the things done. There are people who are doing so,” he said.

Rations, medical care and other entitlements

The government of Tamil Nadu state has issued identity cards and ration cards for Sri Lankan refugees living in all the camps in the state. When rations are distributed, refugees need to present the cards to obtain goods.

Smitha, a fifty two year old mother of five said that the government provides them essential goods at low prices.

“Twelve kg of rice is issued to each adult per month. A child is issued three kg per month. Every family get two kg sugar monthly. The goods issued at low prices are inadequate for the consumption for all of us in a month,” she said.

The refugees used to live in camps with very poor conditions. As they found jobs, they tried to lift the status of their settlements and now they look like small houses, still they are poor quality, but better than the previous condition.

Another Sri Lankan Tamil refugee named Terrance said at the begining it was difficult to live in camps covered with tar sheets and with limited space. As families started being expanded, they had added some installations to the settlements.

“During summer and heavy rains, we suffered a lot inside camps. No one helped us. As time passed by, we found jobs which helped us to earn some money and turn our camps into small houses to survive,” Terrance said.

According to the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), the Revenue Department of Tamil Nadu is recording all the things purchased by Sri Lankan refugees.

Whatever the additions they make to the settlements, they don’t own them. According to the law, they can’t bring anything to Sri Lanka when they return.

“We don’t have a right to legally own a land, a house or a motorcycle. We own nothing here. We left our things in our country,” he further said.

When it comes to the medical care, it is quite satisfying for the refugees as they are allowed to access free medical treatment in government-recognised hospitals, presenting refugee identity cards.

“I am not entitled to any rations given by the government. I am living with my elder sister. I don’t know the reason. I tried several times to discuss with authorities, but failed. However, medical services are free for us, if anyone gets sick we have to go and stand in queues for hours. We are forced to wait than others because we are not citizens. Often times, we have to buy medicine from pharmacies. Some check ups and scans are recommended by doctors to get done by private institutions. We can not afford them. So, we don’t get them done even though those are necessary for our good health,” 68-year-old Reeta said.

Sri Lankan people as refugees are living in camps in India with no solution to their plight. Indian government has not yet decided to recognise them as citizens of India as their existing law does not allow it. Ninety nine percent of these desperate Sri Lankans dream about coming back to their motherland. Next article will address the particular reasons that stop them taking a step out of the camps to return to Sri Lanka and their unacceptable but constant dreams and efforts of illegally going to Australia from boats.

(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror on May 2, 2017. The writer Piyumi Fonseka is a Lakshman Kadarugamar Journalism scholar currently undergoing training at MASCOM, in Kerla, India.)


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