Back to Magazine

Tales from Tamil refugee camps

By Patralekha Chaterjee

Over 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 strategies.

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 faint-hearted.

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 other sweets.

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 government.

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 eaten legume.
“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.

Shifting ground

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 Nadu.

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
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.

Top | Contact Us | Credits | Webmaster

2003 | Copyright