BY Mirudhula Thambiah
"Soon after we were released from the IDP camps in Settikulam, Vavuniya in 2010, there was no guarantee of our security. We felt quite insecure. Although we came out of the welfare camps, we did not have a place to return. Our places were taken over by the High Security Zone (HSZ). So we decided to sail to India, trusting that security shall be ensured to us," 37-year-old Rameshkumar Vijayarani, who recently returned with her family from a refugee camp in Mandapam, Rameswaram to her native place Valithundal, Keerimalai in the Vadamarachchi region, said.
She had returned in July 2015. During the last phases of war Vijayarani and her family lived in Puthukkudiyiruppu, Mullaitivu. "When I was eight, my parents were displaced to Puthukkudiyiruppu. At that time, it was not a war ravaged region. After many years, in 2009, it turned into a war zone," she said.
Vijayarani is now living with her husband and two sons in Keerimalai. Her family is facing severe financial difficulties due to the lack of livelihood facilities since they returned to Sri Lanka. Her husband is employed at a hardware shop in Manippay and has to travel several kilometres from Keerimalai in buses to get to work.
"We have lived in Tamil Nadu for five years. My family and I prefer living in Rameswaram than here. We had more facilities there and my children were studying in good schools. The sum we earned was more than enough to maintain our family. My husband does not have to undergo difficulties to sponsor the family expenses," she said.
The situation of her family was beyond terrible when they set sail to Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu, India. They did not have food for several days, no shelter, or clothes. "We were in dirty clothes. All we wanted was security for our lives. Once we landed in Rameswaram, a secured life was assured. However, we had to face language issues. The Tamil dialect spoken in Tamil Nadu is different to the dialect used in the Northern Sri Lanka. Hence, the people there began laughing at the way we were speaking and we had to strive hard to communicate our needs. They couldn't understand our Tamil dialect. However, eventually, we learnt their dialect. Now I speak the way they do," she said.
Vijayarani also said she suffered a miscarriage when she travelled to Tamil Nadu. She was lacking food, and was mentally and physically stressed. Her sons were too small and the entire family was starving for several days. But she claimed the Tamil Nadu Government assisted them in every way.
Although the Lankan refugees had to undergo certain security procedures in welfare camps, they had reasonable job opportunities. Also, the Tamil Nadu Government offered 750 Indian Rupees for each refugee and 1,200 Indian Rupees to the breadwinner of the family. Adults in most refugee families were employed. Similarly, Vijayarani's husband, 39- year-old Rameshkumar, was employed as a painter and she was a tailor. "People in Tamil Nadu often paint their houses, even for funerals, and my husband was able to earn a reasonable amount. He earned 600 Indian Rupees a day," she said.
Rameshkumar said the helpline provided in the welfare camp in Mandapam, Rameswaram gave them more comfort for his family than he expected. "My family and I starved for several days when we sailed to Rameswaram. My wife was expecting our third child and she had to suffer a miscarriage. We slept with dead bodies around us during the last days of the war. We lived a miserable life. But, eventually, people in Rameswaram saved us," he said.
"We are happy to be in Sri Lanka, our home country. But, we prefer India. We were settled there and had livelihood arrangements. We saved money and our children studied in good schools. Similarly, the Sri Lankan Government should help us to overcome financial problems. They have promised us housing and livelihood schemes. We would be very happy if they can implement it soon. It is quite challenging to travel a long distance for employment when there is few transport facilities. Currently we are living in a temporary shelter made out of tin sheets. It is difficult to live in this temporary hut during rainy seasons," he said.
Meanwhile, 23- year-old Rajendran Rajenthini went to India in 1997 with her family and lived in a welfare camp in Nachiampatti-Salem in Tamil Nadu. "My mother was a heart patient and she couldn't bear heavy noises of shelling and bombing. So my father decided a shift to India. However, in a few days my mother died and my father remarried. My sister and I lived with our grandmother who also came with us to India. My stepmother was not happy to look after us. Therefore, we grew up with our grandmother in the welfare camp.
Better life in India
"I was educated at one of the best schools in Trichy and now I'm a qualified nurse. The Tamil Nadu Government provided some allowance for each of us in our family and it was useful for educational expenses," Rajenthini said.
She added that she returned to Sri Lanka as her native village in Point Pedro was released from the HSZ and her sister decided to return. However, only a part of her house is now standing as it received damages during the war. "I would like to urge the Sri Lankan Government to provide housing facilities and livelihood arrangements as they promised. We have reached here only recently and I cannot find a job immediately. Until then the government must help my family," she said.
Meanwhile, promising to implement housing and livelihood schemes for these refugees who returned from Tamil Nadu, Secretary to the Ministry of Resettlement V. Sivagnanasothy said, the ministry will give them a lasting solution. "We have received Cabinet approval to provide them dry rations for six months. It was a recent decision and it will be implemented soon. We have directed District and Divisional Secretaries to submit details. These people who have returned from India will also be given livelihood assistance, for which we have received approval. Depending on the capabilities we shall put them into orientation and capacity building. We will ensure that they will be absorbed into micro and small enterprise projects."
Programmes are only at preliminary stages. They will be implemented with government funding. The ministry has also initiated a Rs 220,000 livelihood project with Indian assistance. Similarly, houses will also be provided for these families under the 65,000 housing scheme by the ministry, he said.
Since 2011 over 5,000 refugees have returned from Tamil Nadu, India and 100,000 are still remaining in India, out of which over 60,000 are living in 109 welfare camps. Every week some refugees are returning to Sri Lanka to settle in their own places in the North and East. "The environment is very positive in our country. The frequency of refugees returning to the country has increased. Also, there are certain numbers returning on their own, without UNHCR assistance. If they register with our projects we shall consider assisting them as well," Sivagnanasothy said.
The UNHCR provides free air tickets, reintegration allowance of US$ 75 per person, transport allowance of US$ 19 per person, and monitory non-food grant of US$ 75 per family.