Sri Lankan Tamil Refugees in India: Conceptual Framework of Repatriation Success.

Author:George, Miriam


Repatriation to Sri Lanka has become a primary challenge to Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in Indian refugee camps, and a matter of significant public discussion in India and Sri Lanka. Anxiety about repatriation among Sri Lankan Tamil refugees and lack of initiation from the Sri Lankan government threatens the development of a coherent repatriation strategy. This article proposes a conceptual framework of repatriation success for Sri Lankan Tamil refugees, which the Sri Lankan government, non-governmental agencies, and Sri Lankan Tamil refugees may use to develop a concrete strategy for repatriation. Based upon the study results of two of the authors' repatriation studies, this article identifies and describes the four key concepts of the repatriation framework: livelihood development, language and culture awareness, social relationships, and equal citizenship within a nation.


Le rapatriement vers le Sri Lanka constitue l'un des defis principaux que doivent affronter les refugies tamouls d'origine sri lankaise vivant dans les camps de refugies en Inde, et un sujet important de debats publics en Inde ainsi qu'au Sri Lanka. L'inquietude envers le rapatriement parmi les refugies tamouls d'origine sri lankaise et l'absence de demarches de la part du gouvernement sri lankais compromet le developpement d'une strategie coherente de rapatriement. L'objectif principal de cet article est de proposer un cadre conceptuel pour un rapatriement reussi a l'egard des refugies tamouls d'origine sri lankaise que le gouvernement sri lankais, les agences non gouvernementales et les refugies dont il est question pourraient utiliser afin de developper une strategie concrete pour le rapatriement. Fonde sur les resultats provenant des etudes de recherche sur le rapatriement effectuees par deux des auteurs, l'article identifie et decrit les quatre concepts cles du cadre de rapatriement: le developpement des moyens de subsistance, une prise de conscience linguistique et culturelle, les liens sociaux et l'egalite de la citoyennete dans le contexte national.


Since Sri Lanka's independence from Britain in 1948, the Sinhalese and Tamil ethnic groups have had a conflictual relationship over control of northern Sri Lanka. (1) The conflict between majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils in Sri Lanka resulted in three waves of Tamil refugee migration in 1984, 1999, and 2006. (2) India has the highest number of Sri Lankan Tamils outside of Sri Lanka because India is geographically close to Sri Lanka. (3) Of the 123 Sri Lankan Tamil refugee camps in India, 115 are in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu because there is a linguistic and ethnic kinship between Sri Lankan Tamils and Indian Tamils. (4) For example, the main language of the state of Tamil Nadu is Tamil, which is also the primary language of Sri Lankan Tamils. (5) The Tamil Nadu state government provides support and resources for the welfare of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees living in refugee camps. (6) However, the Indian government has refused to give refugee status, permanent resident status, or citizenship to Sri Lankan Tamil refugees, including refugee children who were born in India, primarily because the Indian government expected Tamil refugees to repatriate to Sri Lanka when the civil war ended. (7) The civil war ended in November 2009 and--according to the Ministry of Prison Reforms, Rehabilitation, Resettlement, and Hindu Religious Affairs in Sri Lanka--only 4,691 persons repatriated to Sri Lanka between 2011 and early 2016. (8) Although India has recently signed several international treaties pertaining to the rights and protections of its citizens, Sanderson argues that they provide only some protections for refugees in India. (9) Regardless, India has not signed either the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, which has 140 signatories, an overwhelming majority of the world's nations. There has never been evidence of a forced repatriation from India, but not signing the Refugee Convention and Protocol is a blot on India's record. (10) Additionally, Sri Lanka, although working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to some extent, has refused to sign the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention. (11) As such, typical thought and interpretation of the law regarding the rights and responsibility of individuals' states of origin (12) and host states is only very loosely applicable to the situation facing Tamil refugees in India. This has limited the assistance role of lead agencies such as the UNHCR, which led to restricted ad hoc protection and ambivalent international obligations to provide a successful repatriation program. Integration into local Indian society may be a durable solution for Tamil refugees, (13) but the current situation of "refugee warehousing" (14) in combination with India's ambiguous stance on international refugee issues are barriers in that process. (15) Although resettlement into a third country may be an option for some Tamils, this too is complicated by pre-migration socio-economic status, social connections, and in some cases, safety in a third country. (16)

In light of the current situation, two of the authors conducted separate research on Sri Lankan Tamil refugees' repatriation and livelihood plans, and the results of these studies provide the basis for the development of a repatriation program as a durable solution for this population. This article does not emphasize the idea that "all refugees want to go home" or that "the best place for refugees is home." (17) In fact, many factors could contribute to a Tamil's desire to stay in India, including the individual's understanding of India as home and perceived greater educational and livelihood opportunities. (18) Instead, this article proposes a conceptual framework for the successful repatriation of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees based on the results of two research studies, which might be beneficial for the Sri Lankan government and non-governmental agencies designing repatriation programs for Sri Lankan Tamil refugees who want to return home.

Repatriation and Sri Lankan Tamil Refugees

Voluntary repatriation, which is often considered the optimal solution to refugees' problems, (19) recognizes the right of the individual to safety and security and upholds the dignity of the individual's freedom of choice. Human rights and refugee laws and the agencies working under those laws are subject to promoting voluntary repatriation without any indication that host country or country of origin subscribes to those values. (20) Allen stated that voluntary repatriation is the cheapest option without manipulating international assistance funds; therefore, repatriation is also a pragmatic response, overlooking the possibility of refugee integration into their exile country or a third country settlement as proposed by UNHCR, which is ethically ambiguous. (21) Regardless, the voluntary nature of a refugee's decision to repatriate depends largely on the success of the repatriation program. A common expectation is that refugees will choose to repatriate once the reason for their departure has been resolved, (22) without examining the infrastructures available to repatriates when they return to their homeland. Warner pointed out that voluntary repatriation indicates a return to a home and community with which refugees were associated and embraced before their flight into exile. (23) As a corollary to these perceptions, institutions dealing with refugees tend to depict repatriation as a "homecoming" to a former life and a familiar cultural environment, as a straightforward way of restoring pre-displacement life in familiar settings. (24) However, this assumption does not account for the myriad challenges that refugees often face during repatriation, as evidenced by the experiences of the many refugees who have returned to Sri Lanka from Indian camps. (25) Despite all the attempts to return to Sri Lanka, considerable numbers in India are still reluctant to return, even when the reasons for their flight have abated. The Sri Lankan Tamil refugees are reluctant to return because they are uncertain about having a home, adequate transportation, Tamil-based education system, or health care facilities in the Tamil majority areas. (26) Like any other repatriation process, the repatriation of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees is a complex and multi-level (individual/family/community) endeavour. However, the concept of repatriation for Sri Lankan Tamil refugees must be contextualized to their community needs because no single, generally accepted definition of repatriation can encapsulate the unique context of each refugee population. Within the efforts of the Sri Lankan government and agencies working with Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in Indian refugee camps, the lack of a concrete and transparent repatriation program for Sri Lankan Tamil refugees remains a significant gap. (27) In order to develop a repatriation program, the Sri Lankan government and nongovernmental agencies need a foundational framework to guide their endeavours.

A review of the literature identified a multitude of issues that prevent migrants from repatriating, including the "complexity of repatriation process, demographic characteristics of migrants, duration of stay in a host country, social connection with home country, reintegration in the home country, and social, economic and political support from home country." (28) Most of the literature offers insight on migrant populations generally without discussion of the context that shapes the experiences of specific refugee populations. However, the authors examined the results of two of their studies of the Sri Lankan Tamil refugee situation, which offer foundational concepts for discussion of Sri Lankan Tamil refugee repatriation. The third author and a colleague conducted a primary case study analysis, and secondary data analysis of...

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