Sri Lanka + 1 more

Forgotten people: Upcountry Tamils from Sri Lanka living in refugee camps in India

Why are Upcountry Tamils forgotten?
About 30,000 Upcountry Tamils, who fled to India from Sri Lanka to escape the civil war between majority Buddhist Sinhalese and minority Hindu Tamils, reside throughout some 100 refugee camps in India's Tamil Nadu state according to a recent survey done in the camps. The ancestors of the Upcountry Tamils were taken from India to work in the tea estates of Sri Lanka by the British around 200 years ago. When Sri Lanka got its independence from the British in 1948, the new predominantly Sinhalese government used the Ceylon Citizenship Act of 1948 and the Indian and Pakistani Residents Acts of 1949 to make the Upcountry Tamils stateless.

The fundamental reason for the neglect of the Upcountry Tamils is that since colonial times they have been bonded laborers on the tea estates and have never been integrated into the political and cultural life of Sri Lanka. Their lack of political power, deriving from their statelessness, and the resulting fact that Tamil political leaders in Sri Lanka, both mainstream politicians and the leaders of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), see them as a downtrodden population unworthy of attention combine to leave them marginalized. Few organizations or individuals take up their cause, and lack of access to the camps in India prevents large-scale support and solidarity.

Sri Lanka recently passed the Grant of Citizenship to Persons of Indian Origin Bill, which gave citizenship to any person of Indian origin who had permanently resided in Sri Lanka since October 30, 1964 or was descended from someone who had permanently resided in Sri Lanka since that date. This bill grants citizenship to approximately 168,141 stateless estate Tamils. In January 2004, it was predicted that 145,000 Sri Lankan citizens of Indian origin would receive their National Identity Cards within three months.

The Upcountry Tamils in the refugee camps in India are not covered by the new law because they don't live in Sri Lanka. They have been in the camps in India since 1983, and some have children who were born in India. The main fear among this group has been that they may not be given citizenship once they return to Sri Lanka and will also never receive legal status in India as they came to the country as refugees.

History of the Problem

The conflict between Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka started in 1956 when Sinhala was made the official language by the country's President and large scale discrimination began against the Tamils. The discrimination against the Tamil population continued throughout the 1960s as Buddhism was given the primary place in the state and the number of Tamils employed by the state and admitted into institutions of higher learning was greatly restricted. During this period the Tamils responded to their oppression largely through a political and a non-violent protest movement. In the 1970s, however, there was an increased trend towards Tamil separatism and militancy. By 1978, various militant groups had formed the group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) which was in favor of a separate Tamil state. There were outbreaks of violence between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities in 1977 and 1981, however, in July 1983, the violence escalated into riots throughout the country leading to the start of a civil war. Sri Lanka remained a war-torn country until a ceasefire between the Government and the LTTE in February 2002.

The problem of the Upcountry Tamils began earlier than the 1950s. After independence in 1948 the Sri Lankan government felt that the Upcountry Tamils were not Sri Lankan because they had Indian ancestry. A few of them were given citizenship, but the majority of the citizenship applications from the Upcountry Tamils were rejected. If a parent didn't have citizenship, no one in the family could be a citizen, therefore most of the Upcountry Tamils continued to live in the tea estates without status.

To solve the statelessness problem of the Upcountry Tamils, in 1964 Sri Lanka and India signed the Srimavo-Shastri pact (amended in 1974 by the Srimavo-Indira Gandhi pact) through which out of approximately 975,000 Upcountry Tamils, 525,000 people would be granted Indian citizenship and repatriated to India over the course of 15 years along with their natural increase; 300,000 persons, along with their natural increase, would be given Sri Lankan citizenship; and the status of 150,000 remaining people would be subject to further negotiations between the two governments. The process of repatriation of the Indian citizens, however, was very slow and by the time repatriations were paused in 1984 due to large scale violence in Sri Lanka and a subsequent refugee flow to India, only 337,066 Indian citizens in addition to their natural increase of 125,385 had been repatriated, while 84,141 and the natural increase to their families remained on the island awaiting repatriation to India.

Many repatriated Indian Tamils were not able to find their roots and had to start their lives afresh as foreigners while living in deplorable conditions on tea estates in the Niligiri hills area of Tamilnadu state and in other underdeveloped places. Meanwhile the future of the 84,141 Indian passport holders plus their natural increase - and the natural increase of the natural increase- remained ambiguous for many years until the decision was made by the Sri Lankan cabinet in 2003 to confer citizenship on the Indian passport holders along with 84,000 Upcountry Tamils born in Sri Lanka after 1964.

The People and the Land

The Upcountry Tamils cannot call themselves the sons of the soil even though they have been in Sri Lanka for the last 200 years. They were bonded laborers who lived in the estates for generations. Their children did not go to school, and they didn't have many facilities such as proper accommodations, health care, and education. Yet they continued to live in the estates since they were used to the work and could be sure of the next meal, however scarce it might be. The Upcountry Tamils remain the poorest among all ethnic groups in Sri Lanka. They have never owned land and are the most marginalized section of Sri Lanka's labor force.

Their situation worsened when Sinhala was made the official language. As the problems between the Government and LTTE escalated, the Upcountry Tamils were the first ones to be displaced and were forced to move to northern parts of Sri Lanka which are largely Tamil inhabited. Even in these areas, they were not accepted by other Tamils and had to live in fringe lands around the local Tamils. They were treated by the local Tamils similar to the way in which they had been treated by the Sinhalese tea estate owners. As the civil war intensified and fighting between the Sri Lankan army and the LTTE reached Tamil territories in northern Sri Lanka, the Upcountry Tamils were forced to flee to India as refugees.

Humanitarian Conditions for Upcountry Tamils in Refugee Camps

The plight of the Upcountry Tamils is even worse than that of other refugees in India. In the camps they get the same benefits from Indian camp authorities that the other refugees get, but face discrimination, such as name calling, from the Sri Lankan Tamil population. They have mixed feelings about whether they want to stay in India - where they may get acceptance from the local people - for the long term, or go back to Sri Lanka, which they consider as their homeland. Some obvious questions that linger in their minds are those about where the government will send them when they return to Sri Lanka and how and under what circumstances they will be treated in Sri Lanka if they are accepted as citizens upon return.

The lives of the Upcountry Tamils are precarious. They are in a situation where they do not know if being in the refugee camp in India is any better than going back to Sri Lanka.

Refugees International therefore recommends that:

  • The Sri Lankan government give citizenship to the stateless Upcountry Tamils currently living in refugees camps in India upon their return to Sri Lanka.

  • The Upcountry Tamil Sri Lankan refugees who live in India be given an opportunity to settle in their place of choice in Sri Lanka.

  • The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees take special care in re-settling the Upcountry Tamil Sri Lankan refugees to prevent discrimination by the Sri Lankan government, Sinhalese people, or the Sri Lankan Tamils.

Immaculate Benoit was an intern at Refugees International during the summer of 2004. She has worked with Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka in India.