Born in Sri Lankan Tamil refugee camp, Nalini becomes first to get Indian citizenship

Speaking to TNM, Nalini said she was extremely happy. “This will give confidence to many people like me who want to live better lives and want a better future for their children.”
A picture of Nalini with her Indian passport
A picture of Nalini with her Indian passport

Thirty-six-year-old Nalini spent all of her life in a refugee camp for Sri Lankan citizens in Tamil Nadu. Wanting a better life for her children, she was one of the first people from these camps to seek Indian citizenship. She was born in the Trichy refugee camp in 1986, which makes her an Indian citizen as per the Citizenship Act. Her dream materialised on August 14 this year, when the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court authorised her Indian citizenship, and promptly directed the authorities concerned to issue her an Indian passport.

Speaking to TNM, Nalini said she was extremely happy. “This will give confidence to many people like me who want to live better lives and want a better future for their children.” A mother of two young boys, she says that a lot of people in refugee camps are not even aware that they can apply for citizenship in India. “I had the privilege of having Romeo sir (her legal counsel, Romeo Roy Alfred) explain the Citizenship Act to me and guide me through the process. I would have been lost otherwise!”

Nalini’s primary ambition was to move out of the refugee camp, so that her sons could have a better future. “My prime years are behind me now. I wanted to leave the camp and admit my sons to a good school so that they could get the best education. I want them to have the life that I could not have. Getting Indian citizenship will help me achieve that now,” she says. She is also hopeful that more people from the camps will be able to receive citizenship, and in turn get access to better education and have a secure future.

Saravanan, who has lived in Sri Lankan refugee camps since 1990, has been striving hard to ensure that the refugees here are able to get Indian citizenship. An accountant by profession, Saravanan also tells a story similar to Nalini’s. “Until 2014, many of us did not know if we could become Indian citizens. There was an academic conference in Madras University in 2014, where HODs (Head of Departments) from various universities came to present research papers and have discussions about Sri Lankan refugees. Some of us from the camps were also invited. Only after listening to them speak did we get some clarity on what could be done to get citizenship. Since then, some of us have been creating awareness among people who reside in the camp. That was how we encouraged Nalini to apply for citizenship,” he says.

However, there is some hesitancy among residents of the refugee camps to apply for citizenship, Saravanan says. “People are afraid to move out of the camps. Most of the time, they might not know anyone outside, especially if they were born and raised in the camps. Most parents who have children are worried that their children will have to discontinue their studies if they decide to get citizenship and move out of the camps,” he adds.

According to Kennedy, a human rights lawyer who has offered legal counsel to residents of special refugee camps, there must be more than 10,000 people who were born in the Sri Lankan refugee camps in India. But there is no exact data, he says. “This includes children who were born in the 1980s, not just in Tamil Nadu, but other states as well. Some of them got married to Indians, and their children will be eligible for Indian citizenship.”

Romeo Alfred Roy, Nalini’s legal counsel, says that the grant of citizenship to Nalini is a ray of hope for every person in the refugee camps across the state. “This has been a four-decade-long struggle. Sri Lankan refugees in the camps were either treated as terrorists after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, or as victims of an ethnic crisis. Granting them citizenship will change that image and help them lead secure lives,” Romeo says. He adds that there are 90,000 refugees in camps across the state, among whom almost 90% want to apply for Indian citizenship.

“Unlike most countries in the West, India does not have an Internal Refugee policy. So every refugee who comes to India is treated as an illegal immigrant, despite the circumstances that made them leave their country. Granting citizenship to refugees from Sri Lanka will change this perception. It will change their lives and the lives of generations to come,” he says.

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