Amid war, Tamil refugee flow to India drops

January 31st, 2009 - 12:14 pm ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, Jan 31 (IANS) As Sri Lankan troops sweep through Tamil Tiger strongholds, Tamils seeking to flee the war-hit island to India are finding the boat journey more and more risky, leading to a sharp drop in their arrivals.From 566 men, women and children who sailed to Tamil Nadu in May 2008, the number fell to 155 in December. Until Jan 28 this year, only 111 Tamils had landed on Tamil Nadu’s shores.

The numbers speak a story.

According to leading Sri Lankan activist S.C. Chandrahasan, who has worked among the refugees in Tamil Nadu for years, Tamils wanting to escape to India are finding it increasingly difficult and dangerous.

For one, the army has captured from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) the northwestern district of Mannar, the traditional gateway to south India. Also, the navy now dominates the strip of sea that divides Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu.

The boat journeys were probably never this difficult in the past 25 years, Chadrahasan told IANS over telephone from Chennai.

Refugees who have made it to Tamil Nadu in recent days say the normally tough sea voyage, which can take anything from an hour to a few hours, is now more risky because naval patrols are aplenty - night or day.

Indian naval patrol is also keeping an eye on Tamil Tiger vessels.

Most recent refugee arrivals are from Sri Lanka’s north where the war is now raging. They take up to three days to make it from the interior to the coast, but only the lucky ones find boats to take them across.

Many refugees reach Tamil Nadu starving because they are unable to access food in the military-controlled coastal areas.

And although the boatmen are not charging more money despite the added risks, they are hesitant to cross the sea because naval patrols are now aplenty.

“If a boat is intercepted, it gets seized and the boatmen get into serious trouble,” said an official in Tamil Nadu who has spoken to the refugees.

The official quoted one refugee as saying: “Given the chance, the Tamils caught up in the war zone would make it to India. They are not happy to be in conflict areas but are equally not keen to go over to government areas due to uncertainties there.”

Tamil Nadu is home to tens of thousands of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees who have sailed to India ever since anti-Tamil riots swept the island in 1983.

Most illegal boat rides take place at night, the vessels anchored by veteran boatmen who know every bit of the sea.

Once they are in India, the refugees register themselves with the Tamil Nadu government, undergo routine security checks and then get assigned to any of the 117 refugee camps in the state - unless they can live on their own.

From 566 refugees who made it to India in May 2008, the number dropped to 228 in June. It climbed to 261 in July, before again falling to 155 in August.

The number rose in September to 265 before declining to 199 in October, 168 in November and to 155 in December 2008.

On most months, male refugees have exceeded female refugees. But in December, there were 89 females to 66 males. The fleeing Tamils also include children including toddlers.

Tamil Nadu received a total of 23,168 Tamil refugees from January 2006, when the influx started to pick up following renewed fighting, to January 2009.

(M.R. Narayan Swamy can be contacted at narayan.swamy@ians.in)

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