There are more than 58,000 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees residing at 108 camps in Tamil Nadu, as per government records.

A pic of Sri Lankan refugee camp in TN
news COVID-19 vaccination Wednesday, June 23, 2021 - 18:56

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Mary*, a 50-year-old Sri Lankan Tamil refugee staying at the Villupuram camp for the last 30 years is worried for herself and others at the camp. Out of the 1,400 refugees in the camp, only 90 persons have been vaccinated, she says. Only ten have managed to get their second dose from the nearby Primary Health Centre (PHC). Mary says, “We worry for our lives. The stigma of the pandemic and hesitancy in getting the vaccination is causing more restlessness among residents here.” Although vaccines were available, she says that many camp residents are hesitant to get the COVID-19 shot, especially following Tamil actor Vivek’s death in April.

Unlike several other states, which are prioritising vaccinating Indian citizens before opening up vaccination to refugees, the Tamil Nadu government began immunising Sri Lankan Tamil refugees at camps across the state in early April this year. As per government records, there are more than 58,000 refugees residing at 108 camps in Tamil Nadu and till date the Commissionerate of Rehabilitation and Welfare of Non Resident Tamils has vaccinated over 3000 refugees either through vaccination drives or by allowing them to get the shot from nearby PHCs.

Lankan refugees across several camps that TNM spoke to say they fear taking the COVID-19 shot, falsely believing they may develop other diseases or may die from the vaccine. Devenderan*, a Ramanathapuram camp refugee says,“Only a handful of Lankan residents are willing to get vaccinated, understanding the importance of it.” He alleges that not a single refugee at the Ramanathapuram camp has received the vaccination, with no information provided to them.

“Measures must be taken to vaccinate people here as the population is higher and more people are vulnerable to contract the virus,” he says. Like Mary, Devenderan says actor Vivek’s death fuelled hesitancy among camp residents. This despite the Health Department stating that the 59-year-old had died due to a cardiac arrest, and that his death was not connected to the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Officials should pay heed. The government should conduct more awareness camps and frequently hold counseling sessions to do away with stigma and misconception. Additionally, the government should take measures to vaccinate those residing at two special camps, which are under the police department control,”adds Devenderan. 

At the Vellore camp, Ravi*, a 41-year-old refugee tested positive for the novel coronavirus in August last year. Out of the 194 residents in the Vellore camp, Ravi says 21 got COVID-19 but all including him recovered soon after treatment. “The treatment protocols are followed well and instructions are given on time. I was taken to a COVID care centre for treatment and quarantine,” he narrates. Ravi, however, says that only four refugees have gotten vaccinated so far.

Speaking to TNM, G Ashok Gladston Xavier, an Associate Professor at Social Work Department, Loyola College who volunteers at Sri Lankan Tamil refugee camps in the state admits that there is vaccine hesitancy among refugees despite vaccination drives being held at camps. “Measures are also being taken to address the issue,” he says, adding, “As far as Lankan refugees are concerned, the state government has been proactive in initiating all kinds of compensations and reliefs as possible. From the government's monetary aid to dry ration, the residents in camps receive all the necessities on time.”

Officials, however, say they have initiated several awareness camps and rolled out helpline numbers to address vaccine hesitancy among Lankan refugees. Unlike several other refugee groups, officials say Lankan Tamil refugees in camps have an Aadhaar card and can register for vaccinations. “All measures are being taken to vaccinate the residents and create awareness regarding hesitancy. A helpline number – 8220340965 - is in place for residents to call and enquire about the vaccine availability and any queries regarding the same,” says an official working at one of the refugee camps in northern districts of the state.

According to the Commissionerate of Rehabilitation and Welfare of Non Resident Tamils, less than 1,500 Sri Lankan refugees have contracted the coronavirus so far, while there have been 21 deaths due to COVID-19 recorded across camps since March last year.

(*name changed on request)

This story is a part of the TNM COVID-19 reporting project. To support this project, make a payment here

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