Fleeing for their lives, Dharmalingam Raja and his wife made their way to Tamil Nadu in 1990 from Sri Lanka, where civil war had broken out between the LTTE and the Lankan military. Twenty-six years on, the refugee couple neither have any savings to return to the island-nation nor are able to lead a normal life in the Tamil Nadu.
Fifty-seven-year-old, Dharmalingam, a daily wage labourer and his wife Nageshwari live in a refugee camp in Chennai. Their family has expanded since their arrival 26 years ago, but their condition in the camp remains unchanged. “Three generations of our family are living in India, my children and their children were born here but they still are not given citizenship in this country,” said Dharmalingam.
Their refugee status limits their freedom and their opportunities in life. “Our children do not get proper jobs. Even if our children attain a college degree, private companies do not recruit them and they cannot apply for government jobs. Many of these children end up doing daily wage works,” said Dharmalingam.
On Monday, 600 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees including Dharmalingam protested at Egmore in Chennai demanding citizenship. They also submitted a letter to the Chief Minister’s Cell seeking citizenship and demanding that fines for overstaying in India be reduced.
Sri Lankan refugees living outside the camp have to pay up a fine for overstaying in India. While many of refugees want to return home or go visit their relatives, they say the fine amount is very high for them to pay.
“We have to pay an amount of Rs 3600 per year from the year we began staying in India and this amount is for per person. Additionally, we have to pay Rs. 13,500 for obtaining a visa. So, this has led to many families staying back in India for years now,” said G Gnanraja, secretary, Eelam National Democratic Liberation Front (ENDLF).
Gnanraja had come to India with his parents, leaving their hometown of Kilinochchi in northern Sri Lanka in 1983, during the beginning of the war. “It has been 33 years, I am living here with my family but we are not given a ration card or Aadhar card, we just have Sri Lankan refugee identity cards,” said Gnanraja.
Putting into perspective just how steep the fine for refugees is, Gnanraja explained, “If my family and I want to return back to our country, we have to pay Rs. 15 lakhs as fine and for visa. I do not have this much amount to pay.”
There are over 1 lakh Lankan Tamil refugees living in camps in Tamil Nadu with over 60,000 living in camps across the state. “It is difficult to live in camps, my four family members and I have been living in a small one room house for years. We have to get permission from the police and Tahsildar to even go till Pondicherry,” said Dharmalingam.
While Gnanraja admits that around 20,000 want to return to Sri Lanka, the socio-political landscape in the country doesn’t inspire confidence for many others. “It is peaceful but still the Sri Lankan Tamils do not have any rights there. The Sri Lankan government still arrest Tamils and few have even died in the last few months,” he claimed.