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eelam refugeesTamil Nadu is a state of India and Tamil Nadu’s refugee crisis is part of India’s refugee crisis. Not to deny Tamil Nadu has a special place in the refugee map of India.

According to the Sri Lankan Tamil Refugees Census done and published by the Government of Tamilnadu on 01. 06. 2021 there are 106 camps and two special camps (Ramanathapuram and Thiruchirapalli). There are 18,944 families with 58,822 refugees inside the camps and 13, 533 families with 34,122 refugees outside the camps. And also there are 70 Tamil refugees in two special camps and 20 families with 80 Rohingkya refugees from Myanmar at Kelampakkam, Chennai, Tamil Nadu.

India has indeed refugees, but does not have any law on the recognition, registration and treatment of refugees. And this is the root of the problem.

India has signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948. Article 13 of the UDHR guarantees the right of everyone to leave any country including one’s own and return to it. Article 14 guarantees the right of everyone to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution. So India has an international obligation to respect the rights of asylum-seekers.But India has not yet signed the United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees, 1951 and the Protocol, 1967. It has consistently refused to do so. In UPR II, (UPR – Universal Periodic Review) India has not accepted the recommendation made by UNHCR to ratify the conventions relating to refugees and stateless persons. India has indeed refugees, but does not have any law on the recognition, registration and treatment of refugees. Therefore India treats the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees as shelter-seekers, illegal migrants or foreigners (according to the Foreigners Act), but not as refugees as directed by UNHCR.

Nor does India have a national law relating to refugees. This of course leads to the unjust and arbitrary treatment of refugees. The refugees’ right against refoulment is often violated and they are deported against their will.

India’s failure to sign international treaties and adopt a lawful process through a national law relating to asylum-seekers and refugees has been the reason why the Government of India could adopt the notorious Citizenship Amendment Act, which discriminates between religions and is therefore unconstitutional.

India should let the United Nations High Commission for Refugees operate in full strength in all the cities and do refugee registration and offer all kinds of services to refugees. The UNHCR should be allowed to act independently without any interference from the governments.

India can make amends by using the auspices of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation to consider the 2004 South Asian Declaration on Refugees and the Eminent Persons Group’s proposed National Model Law, which formulated an ideal law on refugees with global human rights standards.

This law is based on international conventions and the 1984 Cartagena Declaration on Refugees. The key elements are the expanded definition of a refugee, the refugee determination test, the inclusion of ethnicity and sex criterion, and dual citizenship. Moreover, India could evolve a regional approach to enunciate the rules and regulations for protecting the refugees in South Asia.

The absence of national legislation on refugees has placed refugee rights in a vacuum, and such rights are regarded as privileges that can only be claimed by those refugees who are politically advantageous for the power structures in the host country. The UN Refugee Convention could be considered as the basis of domestic refugee law.

Tamil Nadu is of course helpless in filling this legal vacuum relating to the rights of refugees. It can only speak of the welfare of the refugees in its care as if their welfare can be protected and promoted even without guaranteeing their rights.

The refugees from Lanka, otherwise called the Tamil Eelam refugees, have been stateless for decades with no light at the end of the tunnel. Yes, they do not see any prospect of returning to their homeland in the near future as the situation there is not regarded safe and conducive, nor do they have a chance of attaining Indian citizenship, even on a provisional basis. Even though the Government of Tamil Nadu appears to support them in their quest for Indian citizenship, the Union Government would not even consider their demand.

By way of solving the issue of citizenship to Tamil ‘refugees’ of Indian origin who are actually repatriates the Government of India must conduct a survey in the refugee camps and outside in Tamil Nadu for tracing out those ‘refugees’ who are of Indian origin. They must be granted Indian citizenship as per the 1964 Agreement signed by the two Prime Ministers, Mr. Sastri and Mrs. Sirimao Bandaranaike on granting citizenship to the Hill Country Tamils of Indian origin. It is an international legal obligation for the Government of India to grant citizenship to such repatriates, which must be done without further delay.

The political and civil rights of the Tamil Eelam refugees and their economic rights should be protected in law and practice by the powers that be.

The Tamil Eelam refugees should not be discriminated against on the basis of their collective political outlooks.

The right to education and to employment relating to Tamil refugees should be honored and they should be treated on a par with the citizens of this country.

The rehabilitation aid provided by the Government should be on a proportion to their needs and should not be mere doles.

The refugee camps should be suitable for decent human dwelling and should in all ways respect their right to human dignity.

The misuse of the Foreigners Act to imprison certain refugees in special camps for indefinite periods is an atrocity against the humanity of the refugees. These camps should immediately be closed down, and their present inmates set at liberty.

- Thiagu

 (This article was published in Fortnightly Magazine 'Abel', Dec 30, 2021)

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