from Tamil refugee camps
By Patralekha Chaterjee
the years, some 200,000 Tamils from Sri Lanka have fled to Tamil
Nadu in southern India to escape the ongoing bloodbath in their
island home. denied the assistance of international and local
humanitarian organizations, they have developed their own self-help
It is a sultry summer afternoon. Inside an unused warehouse,
10km from the temple town of Tiruchirapalli in southern India,
a dusky, middle-aged woman in a strawberry pink sari is trying
to comfort a tearful four-year-old pupil. The teacher, Chandraleela
Kanagaratnam, has a tough task ahead. In a make-shift classroom
without chairs, tables or a proper blackboard — beneath
an asbestos roof in the sweltering heat — 28 restless
infants have to be taught the alphabet. It is not for the
Four years of being a volunteer teacher at the Irumpoothipatty
refugee camp trains you in the art of making lemonade when
life offers only lemons. One cherishes small things, like
the fond memory of the birthday celebration of one of her
pupils. A colour photograph shows a five-year-old affectionately
feeding her a sweet. In the picture’s background is
a wooden table, borrowed specially for the occasion, set with
a grand spread — bananas, grapes, apples, toffees and
These are luxuries for the children in the Irumpoothipatty
camp. Once, the two warehouses stocked sacks full of rice.
Today, they are home to 230 Sri Lankan Tamil refugee families.
The children come from the turbulent northern and eastern
parts of Sri Lanka— from Jaffna, Mannar and Trincomale—
and from families wrenched apart by civil war. Many have been
uprooted several times over. There are little boys and girls
who have lost fathers or who have been orphaned by the war.
There are others whose fathers live and work in an-other town,
earning a pittance as casual labourers to supplement the meagre
cash support given to the refugees by the Tamil Nadu state
Orphans have been taken in by the refugees and raised by
surrogate mothers. Rozariamma, a wizened old refugee woman,
is a member of the camp committee and looks after five orphans.
The support received by the refugees (US$5 for the head of
the family, a smaller amount for other members) is insufficient
to provide a nutritious diet, so many of the refugee women
in the camp have devised their own food security system. Rozariamma
grows vegetables in the patch of green behind her little enclosure.
In addition, she raises poultry.
One of 133 camps housing Sri Lankan Tamils, Irumpoothipatty
illustrates the organization skills of the refugees. In many
camps, self-help groups have sprung up. Several of the camps
have “camp coordinators”, elected by the refugees
themselves. The camp coordinators assign specific tasks to
refugee volunteers who get a small stipend.
Twenty-four-year-old Sathya, an inmate of another refugee
camp, Periyarnagar in the outskirts of Madurai town, is a
“health worker”. Nearly 600 refugee families live
in this camp. Periyarnagar has a problem of underweight children.
Sathya’s job is to ensure that refugee children between
the ages of three and five receive a daily nutritional supplement
of “Bengal gram”, a locally available and widely
“To begin with, I distributed the food in the morning.
But this resulted in the children skipping breakfast and so
there was little improvement in their weight. Now we have
changed the feeding time to late afternoon.” Sathya
says she also insists that the children be brought to the
“feeding centres” at specific points in the camp.
This ensures that the food is eaten by the children only,
and not shared with the whole family.
Sri Lankan refugees, as foreigners resident in a country
not party to the 1951 UN Convention relating to the status
of refugees, have almost no social or political rights. Historically,
India has been a good host, but it does not have any laws
concerning the status of refugees. Consequently, there are
gross differences between the treatment and facilities accorded
to different refugee groups. For instance, while the Tibetans
and Sri Lankans are issued refugee identity cards, the Chakma
tribal refugees camping in north-eastern India are not. Many
Indian refugee analysts argue that the Sri Lankan Tamils are
relatively privileged. At least, the state government is not
trying to force their departure as is the case with the Chakmas.
But today, the Sri Lankan Tamils face a compassion fatigue.
When the first wave of refugees from Sri Lanka arrived on
Indian soil in 1983, an emotional welcome awaited them. The
Tamils of Tamil Nadu shared a cultural and linguistic bond
with the Sri Lankan Tamils from across the Palk straits. But
sympathy for them evapor-ated in the wake of the assassination
of former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991.
All evidence pointed to the involvement of the Liberation
Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a group fighting for a separate
Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka. And every Sri Lankan exile, irrespective
of ideological persuasion, lived under a shadow of suspicion.
Since June 1992, a government order bans NGOs from working
in the refugee camps for “security reasons”. Even
UNHCR officials are not permitted access. A few Christian
voluntary networks are allowed informal access.
In a poor, overcrowded country beset with a myriad of problems,
sympathy for the trials of the “outsider” is progressively
rare. Refugees have to compete with other disadvantaged groups
for scarce land and resources.
Education for survival
The refugees have ingeniously turned adversity to their
advantage. When Indian NGOs stopped their outreach programmes
inside the refugee camps, fearing harassment from official
quarters, the refugees were quick to mobilize themselves.
Many criticize the formation of strong self-help groups
among the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees. Indian NGOs, who are
not allowed to work in the camps, resent the “monopoly”
of these self-help groups. Currently, hard negotiations
are taking place with the state and the central government
to revoke the ban on NGO access to refugee camps in Tamil
But the Sri Lankan Tamils in India have proved that they
are tough players and are adept at lobbying. Following Rajiv
Gandhi’s assassination in 1991, the then Tamil Nadu
Chief Minister Jayalalitha Jayaram withdrew the refugee
children’s access to all educational facilities.
The future of an entire generation was at stake. The refugees
worked out an imaginative solution. In the camps, special
classes were started. Simultaneously, hectic lobbying to
revoke the ban began. Tamil refugee boys and girls formed
a choir that performed at public functions attended by bureaucrats.
The lyrics pleaded for compassion towards fellow Tamils.
The effort paid off. Admission to students up to high school
was restored. Education and music, for the refugees, have
proved to be essential survival tools.
Patralekha Chaterjee, a former student of the Refugee Studies
Programme at the University of Oxford, is a New Delhi-based
journalist with a special interest in migration.
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