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Sri Lanka Tamils fleeing to India to escape economic crisis

May 24, 2022

Sri Lanka's economic and political turmoil is affecting all sections of society, but the Tamil community is being hit particularly hard.

A Sri Lanka nTamil woman at Thai Pongal festival
Tamils are known to be the most discriminated ethnic community in Sri Lanka.Image: Pushpa Kumara/AA/picture alliance

Dozens of poor families from Sri Lanka have fled to southern India over the past few weeks amid an acute economic and political crisis gripping the Indian Ocean island nation.   

The country of 22 million people has been battling severe shortages of essential items, including food, fuel and medicine, as foreign reserves run dangerously low.

The resulting public fury targeting the government triggered mass street protests and political upheaval.

The resignation of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and his Cabinet — and the appointment of a new prime minister — has done little to soothe public anger.

Armed soldiers are currently patrolling the streets to maintain order.

Embarking on perilous journey

Forty-one-year-old Rani, who asked that her real name not be used, told DW how eight of her family members, including small children, fled to India by boat to escape the economic misery.

 A man carries sacks of red onions at a market in Colombo, Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has been struggling with medicine, food, and fuel shortages for monthsImage: Dinuka Liyanawatte/REUTERS

They sold the land they owned in Sri Lanka and rented a boat with that money. They traveled together with another family of four: a couple with their two children, aged 4 and one and a half.

"My husband and children could not find jobs. Every day the prices of food were increasing. My family needs at least 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of rice per day. The price we last paid for rice was around 250 Sri Lankan rupees (€0.65, $0.69) per kilo. We had to pay around 500 rupees per day for rice alone. We could not buy any other food items for our children," she said.

Sri Lankans run out of petrol, and patience

"My son has thalassemia. He has to eat nutritious food. I wanted to provide a better life for my children. That is why I decided to come to India," Rani said.

"We were scared that we would be caught by Sri Lankan authorities while we were crossing and be told to go back," she said. "If we had been caught, all the money we had spent to rent the boat would have been for nothing. We were also scared of what awaited us in India."  

Sri Lankan Tamils hit hard by economic crisis

Indian authorities have so far recorded 28 Sri Lankan families, or 85 people, arriving via boat in southern Tamil Nadu state.

All of them belong to the Tamil community, an ethnic minority in Sri Lanka that shares deep social, cultural and linguistic ties with people in Tamil Nadu. 

Sri Lankan Tamils, the largest ethnic minority in the island nation, accounting for about 12% of the population, have been struggling to recover from the decadeslong civil war that lasted until 2009, claiming around 100,000 lives.

Even some 13 years after the end of the war, reconciliation appears far off. And now the economic turmoil seems to be hitting them particularly hard.

"Even though the political and economic crisis in Sri Lanka is affecting all segments of society, there is an ethnic component to the harm Tamils are facing as a result of the crisis," Suraj Girijashanker, a specialist in international refugee law and assistant professor at the Jindal Global Law School, told DW.

He pointed out that Sri Lankan Tamils — particularly in areas which have been neglected by a series of Sinhalese-majority governments — are experiencing the economic hardship even more severely.

"Often we tend to treat economic harm in isolation, but the history and context in Sri Lanka complicates this picture as there is disparate impact on Tamils because of their ethnicity," he said. 

'India needs a better refugee policy'

This is not the first time there has been an influx of people from Sri Lanka to India; Sri Lankan Tamils have been coming to India since the start of the civil war. 

According to India's Home Ministry, there were 58,843 Sri Lankan Tamils residing across 108 refugee camps in Tamil Nadu as of 2021. Besides, around 34,135 refugees were staying outside the camps, registered with the state authorities.

Rajapaksa responsible for Sri Lanka's woes

India, however, is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.

New Delhi also does not have domestic legislation regulating the entry and stay of people seeking asylum. It treats all those coming into the country seeking refugee status as illegal migrants under The Foreigners Act of 1946.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is responsible for processing such people's applications and determining their status in India. Until then, they're handed a document that allows them to stay in the country.

But the document, a piece of blue paper, is widely dismissed by Indian authorities.

Without assistance from the Indian government, asylum-seekers and migrants find it immensely challenging to either rent homes or find work.

"India needs a national asylum law which prevents disparate standards for different refugee populations during different periods. Such a law may draw from the 1951 Refugee Convention, but also needs to keep the domestic conditions in mind," Girijashanker said.

The Mandapam refugee camp in Rameswaram
The Mandapam refugee camp in Rameswaram is being used by Indian authorities to house those arriving from Sri LankaImage: Krithiga Narayanan/DW

This view is shared by K.M.Parivelan, chairperson of the Center of Statelessness and Refugee Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, who also facilitated the voluntary repatriation of Sri Lankan civil war refugees in the past when he worked with the UNHCR.

"India needs a better refugee policy in line with international humanitarian and human rights frameworks," he told DW. 

"On humanitarian grounds Sri Lankan Tamils need to be protected as a special case. We need to provide interim care and protection. Livelihood support can be given as a temporary measure and then they can be voluntarily repatriated to Sri Lanka," Parivelan said, stressing that, "it should be voluntary repatriation in all circumstances."

How Sri Lanka got into its economic crisis

Stuck in the refugee camp

Indian authorities have been taking those arriving from Sri Lanka over the past couple of months to the Mandapam refugee camp in Rameswaram town.

"We have been staying here for more than a month now, with no end in sight. People who came two months before us are also facing the same situation," Rani said.

"My daughter-in-law is six months pregnant and weak. We have to get permission from the authorities to go for health checkups. We don't know how we are going to manage once the baby is born," she added.

Mani (not his real name), a 26-year-old man who used to work as a painter in Sri Lanka, reached India in March, along with his wife. 

"We could not do anything in Sri Lanka because of the economic crisis. That's why I decided to come to India with my wife on a boat," he told DW.

"If I had known that we would be held in a refugee camp like this, I would not have come at all," he said, noting that they have been staying at the camp for over a month.

"We do not know what is going to happen to us," he said. "If we are given some documentation by India, we can work and provide for our families. That is all we ask."  

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru