25 February 2020 : The Hindu Editorials Mains Notes : Mains Sure Shot for UPSC IAS Exam

Question – The issue of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees has been around for nearly 30 years. Suggest the way forward to solve this issue with a brief analysis.

Context – The demand for dual citizenship to them.


●     More than 1.34 lakh Sri Lankan Tamils crossed the Palk Strait to India between 1983 and 1987 during the first in flow. In three more phases, many more refugees entered India. The war-torn Sri Lankans sought refuge in southern India with more than 60,000 refugees currently staying in 109 camps in Tamil Nadu alone.

  • The migration of refugees into the country had also inspired many filmmakers in India, and have led to the making of memorable films like Kanathil Muthamital.

A brief history of Sri Lankan refugees:

  • In 1948, immediately after the country’s independence, a controversial law labelled the Ceylon Citizenship Act was passed in the Sri Lankan parliament which deliberately discriminated against the Tamils of South Indian origin, whose ancestors had settled in the country in the 19th and 20th centuries. This act made it virtually impossible for them to obtain citizenship and over 700,000 Tamils (consisting of up to 11% of the country’s total population) were made stateless.
  • In 1964, a pact was signed between Bandaranaike and the then Indian Prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri to repatriate (send someone back to their own country) much of the population of the stateless Tamils. Over the next 30 years, successive Sri Lankan governments were actively engaged in deporting over 300,000 Tamils back to India. It wasn’t until 2003, after a state-sponsored pogrom against Tamils and a full-scale civil war, that Indian Tamils were granted citizenship but by this time, their population had dwindled to just 5% of the country’s population. Tamils repatriated to India were assimilated with the location population after taking Indian Citizenships, except a few pockets in Tamil Nadu, where they are still called as Ceylon Tamils.
  • Following the events of the Black July riots, and later the outbreak of the Sri Lankan Civil War, tens of thousands Sri Lankan Tamil refugees arrived in Tamil Nadu in four waves. The first wave on 24 July 1983, after Black July, to the 29 July 1987 up until the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, 134,053 Sri Lankan Tamils arrived in India. The first repatriation took place after the signing of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord in 1987 and between 24 December 1987 and 31 August 1989, 25,585 refugees and non-camp Sri Lankan nationals returned to Sri Lanka.
  • The second wave began with the start of Eelam War II after 25 August 1989, where 122,000 Sri Lankan Tamils came to Tamil Nadu. On 20 January 1992, after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi 54,188 refugees were voluntarily repatriated to Sri Lanka, until March 1995. Eelam War II commenced in April 1995 starting the third wave or refugees. By 12 April 2002, nearly 23,356 refugees had come to Tamil Nadu.
  • The flow of refugees had stopped in 2002 because of the cease fire agreement.

The present condition:

  • Nearly 100,000 Sri Lankan refugees who are living in India are not eligible for citizenship under a new law, sparking concerns that they may be forced to return to the island nation they fled during a decades long civil war, many with no homes to return to.
  • India’s Citizenship Amendment Act aims to fast-track citizenship for persecuted Hindus, Parsis, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and Christians who arrived in India before Dec. 31, 2014, from the Muslim-majority nations of Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
  • The law excludes nearly 100,000 Sri Lankan Tamils, an ethnic minority, who live in India, including about 60,000 in camps in southern Tamil Nadu state, according to the home department.
  • Most of these refugees are Hindus or Christians whose forefathers were born in India.
  • Many were sent by the British as indentured laborers on Sri Lankan tea plantations and hoped for a better life in India when they came here during the Sri Lankan civil war.
  • Thousands of people were killed in Sri Lanka’s civil war, which ended in May 2009 after nearly three decades.
  • Tens of thousands fled or were forced from their homes in the country’s north and east, and many sought refuge in neighboring India, particularly in Tamil Nadu.
  • Many had their properties seized during the war.
  • In Tamil Nadu, the refugees get free education, health care, rations and a modest allowance but they have limited access to jobs and cannot get official documents.

CAA and the demand of dual citizenship for Sri Lankan refugees:

  • The contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, has again triggered an ill-advised demand for dual citizenship to Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka.
  • The constitutional and legal position is clearly against the grant of dual citizenship per se.
  • As on date, no Indian citizen holds the citizenship of any other country.
  • Even when the Centre amended the Citizenship Act in 2003 to introduce the Overseas Citizens of India (OCI) scheme for sections of the Indian diaspora, all it provided was a limited version of ‘dual citizenship’ which came without political rights and with a bar on purchase of agricultural land. It would defy logic, then, to seek dual citizenship for those who are not Indian nationals.

The government’s position:

  • Although the Central and State governments do a lot to make the refugees’ stay comfortable, most of them are regarded as illegal migrants, as they arrived with no valid travel documents.
  • In the run-up to the 2016 Assembly elections, the then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, Jayalalithaa, flagged the issue of dual citizenship.
  • Early this month, the government told the Rajya Sabha that neither the Constitution nor the CAA permitted dual citizenship. This ought to put an end to the debate, which will otherwise create false expectations among the refugees.

Condition of refugee camps:

  • While going around the refugee camps in the state, it was noticed that the camps lacked even the basic facilities in terms of sanitation and security. Thatched houses separated using tarpaulin sheets. The refugees are given 20 kg of ration rice per family, Rs 1000 per month for the head of the family, Rs 750 for adults and Rs 400 for children. The children are given free education till class 12 and also provided with all the state benefits that are given to the Indian students. But this is not sufficient and a lot needs to be done.

Way forward:

  • Given the need to treat the refugees in a humane manner and in the absence of a law on refugees, the Centre should stop seeing Sri Lankan refugees as “illegal migrants”; they entered India with the knowledge and approval of Indian authorities.
  • As for those who wish to remain in India for studies or to earn a livelihood, the authorities should tweak the OCI Cardholder scheme or offer an exclusive long-term visa. By this, the stay of 95,000-odd refugees in Tamil Nadu will be regularised.
  • As for those keen on returning home but are unable to do so for want of support from Sri Lanka, New Delhi should lean on Colombo to help enable their early return.
  • Besides, the two countries should formulate a scheme of structured assistance to expedite voluntary repatriation, which is moving at a snail’s pace even a decade after the civil war ended.
  • These steps can lead to a lasting resolution of issues concerning those who have been in India for over 30 years.

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