Sri Lankan refugees in Tamil Nadu brace for coronavirus crisis amid challenging circumstances of camp life

Having survived a civil war, Sri Lankan refugees in Tamil Nadu camps say they are prepared to battle coronavirus crisis: 'Covid is only a new dimension to our suffering. We will not allow it to defeat us.”

Kavitha Muralidharan April 20, 2020 10:31:58 IST
Sri Lankan refugees in Tamil Nadu brace for coronavirus crisis amid challenging circumstances of camp life

Three decades ago, a then eight-year-old Sukumaran* landed on the shores of Tamil Nadu, fleeing war-torn Sri Lanka. Since then, the Sri Lankan refugee camp in Madurai has been his home. “I lost my mother here, my sisters got married here and so did I. This is where my roots are,” he says.

Sukumaran is among the many refugees in camps across Tamil Nadu who hope the government will someday grant them citizenship so they can live with a little more freedom on the same land. Since the end of civil war in Sri Lanka in 2009, about 15,000 refugees have already returned to the island nation. But for others like Sukumaran, Tamil Nadu is their home. “We grew up here. We have an entire generation that has no idea what Sri Lanka looks like. It scares us to imagine an entirely new life in Sri Lanka. We might have to start from the scratch and not all of us are prepared for it,” he notes.

At least 54,000 Sri Lankan Tamils live as refugees in 107 camps across the state, including a special camp in Tiruchy. About 32,000 Sri Lankan Tamils live outside of camps.

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Having spent a major portion of their lives in the congested lanes and closely located houses in the camps, these Sri Lankan Tamil refugees have probably seen it all — until the coronavirus outbreak, that is. “It has jolted our somewhat settled lives,” says Sukumaran. Most homes share a wall, and toilets are common, making physical isolation and quarantining challenging. But from raising awareness to using disinfectants, to raising funds for the community and for contributions to relief efforts, these refugees are finding various ways to tide over — or survive — the crisis.

Like many refugees in the camps, Sukumaran takes on painting jobs to sustain his livelihood. “That is the only job where you don’t need any kind of investment, so you can see many painters in any Sri Lankan camp,” he explains. But with the nationwide coronavirus -related lockdown, jobs are scarce for Sukumaran and many others, forcing them to survive on the limited provisions disbursed by the government.

This is just one part of the problem though.

“There are 72 families at Minnur camp near Vellore,” says a resident, Murugan*.  “Some who had gone to other districts and states for work have come back now, but they have not been screened.” The 10’X10’ houses at the refugee camps do not offer the luxury of isolation or quarantine for the residents who have returned.

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At the Sri Lankan refugee camps in Tamil Nadu

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The registered members of the camps do get some provisions from the government but Murugan says those not registered needed to be taken care of too, adding: “Also, we need to definitely have health checkups o screenings in our camps, considering that there are many people who have come back from other districts and states.”

At present, no COVID-19 positive cases have been reported from the refugee camps. However, “in the Madurai camp, each family lives so close to the other that containing the spread of the virus, should it occur, would be difficult,” says Sukumaran. “While the government has many priorities, some focus on the camps is also needed as they must realise the potential danger of the spread of COVID-19 in a place like a refugee camp.”

For those who have experienced a civil war, the coronavirus outbreak could prove less challenging. “We are in mortal fear yes, but that has not stopped us from doing our bit,” says Santhosh*, a resident at a camp in Thoothukudi.

Refugees at many camps have set up action committees to address issues as best they can. At Madurai, besides disinfecting the roads and toilets on regular basis, the committee also distributed “Kabasurakudineer” — a decoction that purportedly boosts immunity. The Thoothukudi camp has come up with music videos to create awareness around the coronavirus and emphasising the need for social isolation. Registered members of the various camps have also been raising money to support those without registration and therefore ineligible for government relief.

Difficult times notwithstanding, refugees at the camp in Namakkal have raised Rs 10,000 to contribute to the state’s coronavirus relief fund. Says one of the camp residents, “Yes, we struggle more now, but we cannot remain idle when there is such a crisis. The Tamil Nadu government has helped us, now it is our turn to give back — however little.”

An outlier in this narrative is the Tiruchy special camp, which is meant to house ‘offender’, and currently counts about 54 Sri Lankan Tamils and 20 refugees from other countries among its residents. “Our offence was that we had either procured a duplicate passport or tried to leave India by boat — both illegal,” says Suresh*, a 59-year-old Sri Lankan Tamil refugee. “We were arrested, lodged in prison, and after being released on bail, brought to the Tiruchy camp.”

The residents of this camp are now demanding that they be released and allowed to join their families living elsewhere. From 15 April, some 21 residents of the camp have been on hunger strike to press for their demand. “The camp’s conditions are not really good; some people have used their own money to improve conditions, but this is not the kind of place you would want to live in during a crisis like this. Our place is not disinfected, we are not screened medically,” Suresh says.

The residents have written to the Chief Minister and other political leaders seeking their intervention to ‘facilitate their release’. The residents also think it is imperative that they be allowed to live with their families when there is a global crisis ongoing. Suresh, for instance, says he is constantly worried about his family, who live in Madippakkam in Chennai.

Vanni Arasu, deputy general secretary of Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (an Ambedkarite party in Tamil Nadu that has consistently voiced its concern for Sri Lankan Tamil refugees), says those at the special camp should be “immediately and unconditionally released”. Arasu also says the government should come forward to release more relief material for the refugees in camps: “Not all refugees get financial assistance and relief material. The government should not discriminate during a crisis like this.”

Those in the camps continue to hope that they will pull through the present crisis. “We have survived a war, crossed seas and are living a refugee life,” says Sukumaran. “Covid is only a new dimension to our suffering. We will not allow it to defeat us.”

*Names of refugees have been changed to protect identity

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