Most of the refugees are called “illegal migrants” because they entered India without valid papers. Now they can only opt for a long-term visa
Subashini, a young Sri Lankan Tamil refugee from Mandapam camp near Rameswaram, rushes out of the scene, only to say to this writer: “Please convey our gratitude to the Chief Minister. [M.K. Stalin] for a well thought out package ”. Another inmate at the camp, Nagalakshmi, who is in her 60s, also congratulates Mr Stalin for changing the nomenclature of the camps – from refugee camps to rehabilitation camps. “Sure, it’s symbolic but it means a lot to us,” she says.
These feelings are not unique to Mandapam. A similar opinion prevails among detainees in Gummidipoondi and Puzhal camps in the northern districts of Tamil Nadu or those in Kottapattu camps in Tiruchi district and Palavathanur in Salem. The latest development has rekindled a debate between them and activists on the prospects of legalizing their stay, if not acquiring Indian citizenship.
K. Dharmalingam, detained at Puzhal camp for nearly 25 years, is not sure whether seven of his grandchildren, all born here, will obtain Indian citizenship. He and many of his fellow citizens wonder why Indian citizenship is not granted to children when they were born in the country and received many concessions, although many Western countries grant citizenship to dozens. refugees.
On paper, Dharmalingams or Nagalakshmis, even if they are Sri Lankan citizens, can acquire Indian citizenship through two options: registration or naturalization after fulfilling the eligibility criteria set out in the Citizenship Act of 1955. But most of the refugees do not qualify for citizenship as they are called “illegal migrants” for entering the country without valid documents. The extraordinary conditions in which they reached Danushkodi, entry point for refugees until the end of the civil war in 2009, and their entry having been registered by a team of officials do not seem to withstand administrative control. In addition, a 1983 communication from the Center to the state government on the “inadmissibility” of refugees for citizenship was too important a document to ignore.
In June 2019, a forceful order by Judge GR Swaminathan of the Madras High Court in support of the citizenship application of 65 people, all detained at Kottapattu camp, did not impress the Center, which filed an appeal. in front of Madurai Court. The Centre’s position was that even if the petitioners met all the eligibility criteria, “they cannot demand de jure citizenship”. Even the single judge had admitted that “citizenship is in the exclusive executive domain” of the central government.
Senior officials of the Rehabilitation Department believe that once the advisory committee, whose formation was recently announced by Mr. Stalin, is established, it will be able to deliberate on the issue of regularizing the stay of consenting refugees. At present, there is only one option – the Long Term Visa (LTV) – which is available to these people. The Union Home Office hinted at the Joint Parliamentary Committee, which considered the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill before it was passed by Parliament in 2019. country of origin due to race , religion, sex, nationality, ethnic identity, membership of a certain social group or political opinion ”.
Even though the battle of some sections of the refugees continues for Indian citizenship, there are others who do not seem to find it easy to obtain Sri Lankan citizenship as well, or even regular Sri Lankan passports. Referring to the problem of many skilled refugees who cannot get suitable employment in India, some elderly women in Gummidipoondi suggest that Sri Lankan authorities in Chennai or New Delhi issue them with regular passports after background checks. This will at least help some refugees to seek greener pastures in any third country. And women claim that such a practice was in vogue until about 10 years ago.
The Deputy High Commission of Sri Lanka (SLDHC) in Chennai explains that it has issued international passports to “all Sri Lankans who have a valid visa and the necessary documents”. The Department of Immigration and Emigration “is having difficulty” issuing international passports to Sri Lankans living in and outside Tamil Nadu camps “due to lack of documents and non-availability of visa ”. Alternatively, the SLDHC issues temporary travel documents to applicants returning to Sri Lanka where they can obtain the 10-year passport upon presentation of the relevant documents, either as part of a ‘day service or through the normal procedure. “.
As for the issuance of birth certificates to the children of refugees born in Tamil Nadu, the SLDHC says it issues consular birth certificates “on the same day as the application is filed without delay if all the documents are in order”. As for citizenship, he replied that once applications are filed, they are sent to Sri Lanka for verification. Normally this is a “one year procedure”.
Even if the intensity of COVID-19 declines and international travel is freely permitted, there will be obstacles to voluntary repatriation. Even though the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees provides plane tickets, along with 20 kg of free extra baggage authorized by Sri Lankan Airlines, to each returning refugee, apart from monetary subsidies, some refugees believe that this would not be the case. not enough because they have acquired a great deal of property over the past 20-30 years. This explains the demand for resumption of ferry services.
Six months ago, a Coimbatore-based company, Indsri Ferry Services, signed a memorandum of understanding with Sagarmala Development Company Limited for the management of services between Karaikal in Puducherry and Kankesanthurai in the Northern Province. S. Niranjan Nanthagopan, Managing Director of Indsri Ferry Services, said his company also recently submitted an expression of interest at the port of Karaikal. Each trip can take up to four hours. “We are ready to offer 100 kg of free luggage,” he said, adding that given the close ties between the peoples of the two countries, the company has enormous potential for sustainable business.
There are several challenges awaiting those who return voluntarily, says Pathinathan, a Tamil writer, who returned to his hometown of Mannar District in 2019 after living in Tamil Nadu for almost 30 years. “Initially, the psychological impact due to migration was enormous. Little by little, with the support of my relatives and friends, I managed to get over it, ”he says, adding that he has started farming, growing legumes. These days he is also busy building a house with the support of the Sri Lankan government. The only reason Mr. Pathinathan returned home was that he could no longer wear the refugee label. Such a feeling exists even among many people living in and outside the camps, while others aspire to Indian citizenship. But what is clear is that the “one size fits all” formula cannot be adopted with regard to refugees living in the state.