For want of planned repatriation
Sri Lankan Tamil refugees risk lives to return

By Shamindra Ferdinando


For want of a government scheme to bring in Sri Lankan Tamils living in India, people are making a hazardous sea journey across the Indo-Lanka maritime boundary in Indian fishing craft. Although the war ended in May last year, the government was yet to arrange for the repatriation of Tamils living in refugee camps, sources told The Island.

Navy headquarters said that the Special Boat Squadron (SBS), operating close to the Indo-Lanka maritime boundary over the last weekend, had rescued 13 persons, including three children stranded on the seventh Sand Bank of the Adam’s Bridge off Talaimannar.    

Sources said that the group comprising seven men, three women and three children had paid Rs. 5,000 each for their passage. Sources said that they had been left on the seventh Sand Bank at the edge of the Sri Lankan territorial waters to pave the way for the SLN to rescue them.

They had left Sri Lanka in 1990, 1996 and 2000. Sources said that they had been living at Vavuniya, Jaffna, Mannar and Nanattan during the earlier phases of eelam war. They had been accommodated at the Mandapam refugee camp.

The Navy rescued a group of five persons returning to Sri Lanka under similar circumstances on March 6, 2010. Sources said that they had been stranded on the Sand Bank for four days before a routine SLN patrol detected them. Sources said that the Navy rescued seven more Sri Lankans on February 9, 2010. Responding to a query by The Island, an authoritative official said that the government could reach an agreement with India to repatriate those willing to return in an orderly way similar to that of fishermen arrested for poaching.

The SLN and the Indian Coast Guard regularly assist the repatriation of fishermen across the Indo-Lanka maritime boundary.

The SLN has deployed substantial assets to thwart clandestine boat movements between India and Sri Lanka. Navy headquarters said that attempts were being made to carry out illegal movements.

Sources said that four persons returning from India had been arrested on August 19, 2010, in an operation coordinated by troops deployed at fishing marshalling points and patrol boats in the northern seas. The Navy recovered three global positioning systems (GPS) and three mobile phones from the suspects. Investigations revealed the suspects had left through the Bandaranaike International Airport some time ago seeking to find employment in the West through an agency based in India. After failing to realize their dream, they had made an attempt to return illegally.

Sources said that the Navy detected five Sri Lankans crossing the Indo-Lanka maritime boundary in an Indian dhow on February 19, 2010.

Government sources said that more refugees would be tempted to return due to rapid resettlement of the war displaced. They said that the conclusion of the war could help the country to settle the long standing refugee issue. Sources emphasized that this could no longer be a political issue in Tamil Nadu, where political parties exploited the refugee problem to their advantage.

However, a section of refugees had returned home from India with UNHCR’s help since the end of the conflict. The number of people, who had come back in the first half of 2010, surpassed the total number for 2009, sources said.

According to Indian government figures some 73,000 Sri Lankan refugees are living in 112 camps in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu with a further 34,000 outside the camps.

UNHCR statistics show that in the first six months of this year, 852 refugees returned from India with UNHCR help compared to a total of 823 for all of 2009. A further 1,005 refugees returned on their own accord – what UNHCR calls ‘spontaneous’ returns – and approached UNHCR offices in Sri Lanka for assistance.

Sources emphasized the importance of a specific programme to reach Sri Lankans living in India before trying to convince those living in the West that the country is safe. Sources said that those who visited Europe were turning a blind eye to Sri Lankan refugees living across the Palk Strait.

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