Sri Lanka Appoints Committee For Repatriation Of Refugees From India

On September 5th, 2022, the office of Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe appointed a committee to facilitate and optimize the repatriation of Sri Lankan refugees who fled to India during the 26-year-long Sri Lankan civil war from 1983-2009. The committee has been appointed by President Wickremesinghe’s Secretary, Saman Ekanayake, and is headed by Ms. Chandima Wickramasinghe, Senior Assistant Secretary to the President. The committee also includes the Controller General of Immigration and Emigration and senior officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Registrar General’s Department, and the Ministry of Justice.

A statement from the President’s Media Division (PMD) declared that there are about 58,000 Sri Lankan refugees currently residing in Tamil Nadu, India (a South Indian state), but only 3,800 of them are currently ready to return to Sri Lanka. The PMD statement said the decision to appoint the committee was reached at a discussion held at the President’s Office at the request of the Organization for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation (OfERR), a non-profit, non-political humanitarian organization that has been working with displaced Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in India since 1984. OfERR aims to repatriate Sri Lankans who fled to India as refugees during the almost three-decade long civil conflict.

According to a 2019 report by the Refugee Studies Center at the Oxford Department of International Development, over 67,000 Sri Lankan refugees have been living in 107 camps scattered across Tamil Nadu, a South Indian state, and just under 37,000 lived outside the camps at the time of the study. The report stated that “although refugees are entitled to residence visas and work permits, prolonged life in the camps does not lead to resilience and empowerment, and these refugees consider themselves in limbo, belonging neither to Sri Lanka nor to India and unable to get on with their lives. Tamil refugees – especially youth – wish to be disassociated with the label of ‘refugee’, which they feel would improve quality of life for them, their families and their communities.”

The Sri Lankan civil war came about following conflict between the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) insurgent group who wanted to establish a separate state for the Tamil minority. After a 133 year long colonial rule, Great Britain granted Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon, independence. Soon afterwards, the Sinhalese majority began to pass laws that discriminated against Tamils, particularly the Indian Tamils who were brought to the island by the British. Sinhalese was made the official language, which consequently drove Tamils out of the civil service and the Ceylon Citizenship Act of 1948 barred Indian Tamils from holding citizenship, which left approximately 700,000 people stateless. 

After decades of increasing ethnic tension between the two groups, civil conflict began as low-level insurgency in July 1983. Tamil Tiger insurgents killed 13 army soldiers, prompting violent retaliations against Tamil civilians by the Sinhalese across the country. It is estimated that between 2,500 and 3,000 Tamils died, while many thousands fled to Tamil-majority regions. The Tamil Tigers declared the “First Eelam War” (1983-87) with the aim of creating a separate Tamil state in northern Sri Lanka called Eelam. Within the following few years, violence escalated as the Tamil insurgents used car bombs, suitcase bombs, and landmines against Sinhalese military and civilian targets while the Sri Lankan army retaliated by torturing Tamil youths who then disappeared.

In 1987, India’s Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, decided to directly intervene in the Sri Lankan Civil War by sending a peacekeeping force. India, at the time, was concerned about separatism in its own Tamil region, Tamil Nadu, as well as a potential influx of refugees from Sri Lanka. In May 1990, Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa forced India to recall its peacekeeping forces after 1,200 Indian soldiers had died battling the insurgents. 

Sri Lanka still remains a dangerous place for Tamil refugees due to the state’s active repression of Tamil citizens. As of May 2021, approximately, 3,000 acres of Tamil land still remain under police and military occupation and the Sri Lankan government remains exclusive, with little to no representation for the Tamil and Muslim populations of the country. With regards to the Tamil refugees who do not seek repatriation back to Sri Lanka and want to avoid becoming stateless persons, UNHCR should act as a consultant to the Indian government to assist it in developing a plan that grants citizenship to all those seeking permanent residence in the country. Refugees who are not seeking repatriation should not be forced or coerced into said matter and their requests for citizenship in India should be granted by the Indian government.

For the Tamil refugees who are seeking repatriation back to Sri Lanka, it is vital that they are supplied with accurate facts about the current economic and political situation in Sri Lanka as well as their social status as a Tamil minority. The committee should create a responsible repatriation plan that seeks to ensure physical security and access to land, livelihoods, higher education, and work opportunities for those who are repatriated. Within Sri Lanka, it is imperative for the committee – alongside other local and international organizations and in collaboration with local community leaders and government officials – to promote reconciliation between Tamil and Sinhalese communities and between returnees and host communities. The Sri Lankan government should be encouraged to further improve security conditions and reduce discriminatory practices across all sectors of Sri Lankan society in order to ensure Tamil returnees are safe, secure, and represented in their home country.