There lies hope for many returnees back in Sri Lankan soil.

 Anxious and excited Sri Lankan refugees are leaving India in search of freedomPTI
news Refugees Thursday, June 23, 2016 - 14:55

Over cups of milky coffee, three young Sri Lankan Tamil refugees are excitedly discussing meeting their cousins back in their hometowns of Jaffna, Killinochi and Mannar. After the war, 19-year-old Kausalya, a Sri Lankan Tamil refugee from Killinochi, didn’t want to move away from her tight-knit camp in Tiruvannamalai. Sure, she was curious about her roots. “But I didn’t know a life away from this, and living in a camp wasn’t so bad,” she says, smiling at the thought of meeting her extended family. 

During World Refugee Week, at the screening of 'No Longer a Refugee' a documentary on refugees who returned to their homeland after the war ended in May 2009, the three are a spirited lot. It takes a good, hard look at the strides Sri Lanka has made, the problems that continue to arise, and what can be fixed. "Just looking at Killinochi in my documentary has both excited me and prepared me for what's to come. I'm still nervous, but I know things are better than before," says Kausalya.

Since 1991, many refugees displaced from the Indo Sri Lankan civil war, have lived across camps in Tamil Nadu with the patronage and assistance of the Indian and Tamil Nadu governments. In 2015, a slight spike in the number of returnees to Sri Lanka from camps across Tamil Nadu has been observed. In an effort to divorce the tag of a refugee with hopelessness and fear, many families are being increasingly encouraged to move back. “Sri Lanka looks a lot better now. There are roads, there are jobs, there’s even internet,” says Sai Sharanya, another refugee from a Thoothukudi camp who earned her Bachelor’s degree in Commerce and works in Chennai. 

These first generation refugees, born and brought up in camps and having never seen their homes back in Sri Lanka, will be leaving in a few months to see their families. What makes their choices difficult is the uncertainty that awaits them. “We haven’t faced any major discrimination here while receiving education or living out of camps. Our jobs pay well here, and we have connections with our friends here that are almost familial,” she says. Kausalya echoes the sentiment, but says she feels an urge to serve her country. “Now that the war is over, we have been protected from the bloodshed, the struggle, the rage. We cannot live our life in privilege. I feel like we owe something,” she says. 

OffER, an NGO that works with rehabiliatation of refugees, studied the lives of over 8,000 refugees who returned back to their homes in Sri Lanka. Of them, many report that lack of enough aid or help from United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for spontaneous returnees continue to be a major issue. What could have been seamless rehabilitation turns into remorse-filled dislocation for many. 

If Sai Sharanya were asked a year ago to move back, she would have dismissed the idea with a chuckle. In camp, huddled together over dinner, her friends often discussed if anyone would go back to “Ceylon”. “We’d all look at each other in silence, and one girl would say she was considering it. We’d all call her mad. But inside, we all want to see where we come from,” she says. 

What changed? “Once we got jobs, we have to return back to our camps twice in a month for checking. If we have to go to visit family or friends outside the camp, it’s a long painful process of permission letters. We don’t have as much freedom as we’d expected. We knew it was time to leave after a point,” says Sharanya. 

“There, daily wage jobs pay well. Everyone from painters and masons to accountants and typists are being paid well. The only problem is land,” says Thomas, who has lived all his life in the Puducherry refugee camp. Families who have returned face the problem of land-grabbing from Sinhalese landlords. While many left them in the care of relatives when they fled, things changed enough over 10 years for them to not know what state their land currently is in. That’s a fight many of these youth plan to face when they go back. 

Many are also scared of alienation, a feeling of loss from the life they knew. “Apart from family, we barely know anyone here. We don’t know how that is going to work out for us. But we as young Sri Lankan Tamils want to fit in and hope we can make the country better for more generations to live in. The war is over, after all," says Kausalya.

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