Is a possible refugee crisis emerging as the Sri Lankan economic crisis has increased the number of Tamils taking asylum in India?
The media, both Sri Lankan dailies/audio-visuals and its international counterparts have portrayed how the people have been protesting for the last two months over prolonged power cuts and shortage of gas, food, and other basic goods. The protestors claim that the quality of the essential items is very poor though the price is exponentially high. Under the circumstances, it has been reported in the media that a section of people of Lanka has become desperate to take shelter in India to escape this critical situation. Against this backdrop, this essay intends to capture the flight of Sri Lankan Tamils suffering from hunger to the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and its aftermath. As Sri Lanka is a member of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), a multilateral regional organisation, it would be imperative to analyse the other member states’ responses to Sri Lanka’s debt-ridden economic crisis.
As Sri Lanka is a member of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), a multilateral regional organisation, it would be imperative to analyse the other member states’ responses to Sri Lanka’s debt-ridden economic crisis.
It is noteworthy in this context that in its recently submitted Annual Report for 2020-21, the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India states that as of 1 January 2021, there were 58,843 Sri Lankan refugees staying in 108 refugee camps and around 34,135 refugees are staying outside the camps in Tamil Nadu. These are the displaced Sri Lankan who escaped from their abode during the internal strife in the country The Ministry also indicates that around 304,269 Sri Lankan refugees entered India in various phases between July 1983 and August 2012. Though the Government of India is not a signatory to the International Refugee Convention of 1951 and the Protocol of 1967, these displaced asylum seekers from Sri Lanka were recognised as refugees like Tibetan refugees, Chakmas from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), Hindu refugees from Pakistan, and so on. For the sake of humanitarianism, the Indian government granted relief assistance to these displaced but the ultimate objective was to repatriate them back to their country. The facilities that were given to these refugees included shelter in camps, cash doles, subsidised ration (dry doles), clothing, utensils, medical care, and educational assistance. An amount of INR 1,154 crore was spent by the Centre for relief and accommodation for these refugees between July 1983 and 31 December 2020. The report also reveals that altogether 99,469 refugees were repatriated to Sri Lanka up to March 1995, and there has been no organised repatriation after March 1995. There are incidents where some refugees have returned to Sri Lanka or left for other countries on their own.
During interrogation, these migrants have expressed that the economic crisis has reached an extent where poor workers with a meagre income cannot survive.
More so, the Tamil Nadu government has requested the Centre to grant permission for “special provisions to give temporary asylum” to the Sri Lankan asylum seekers. Stalin also virtually interacted with the asylum seekers housed at a camp at Mandapam to enquire about their basic needs and welfare. Minister for Non-Resident Tamils Welfare, Gingee K.S. Masthan, Chief Secretary V. Irai Anbu, Public Secretary D. Jagannathan, Commissioner of Rehabilitation and Welfare of Non-Resident Tamils Jacintha Lazarus, Ramanathapuram Collector Shankar Lal Kumawat, and senior officials also participated in the virtual meeting. Following this urge of the State to help the hapless people of the island nation, the Ministry of External Affairs allowed the State government to send food materials and essential medicines to the island country. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, M. K. Stalin thanked India’s Minister of External Affairs, S. Jaishankar for accepting the Tamil Nadu government’s request and opines “…am sure that this humane gesture will be greatly welcomed by all and help to improve the warmth and cordiality between nations. Let the goodwill grow in all spheres”. Finally, the Tamil Nadu government sends its first consignment to Sri Lanka on 19 May.
Age-old community linkage and previous practices have motivated the Tamil Nadu government to take initiatives to ship food grains, vegetables, and medicines from the Thoothukudi port for the Tamils located in northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka and also in its capital Colombo as well as in upcountry areas where a huge section of Tamil plantation workers reside.
While crisis-hit Sri Lanka struggles to get back on track, Bangladesh has extended the term of the loans to the island nation under a currency swap deal by one more year. According to the deal (May 2021), Sri Lanka was supposed to repay the loan within three months, however, as the country is facing a severe economic crisis, the Bangladesh Bank directors have decided to extend the loan term. Bangladesh has also sent emergency medical supplies to Sri Lanka. Indeed, it is interesting that Thailand, the current BIMSTEC chair, is still silent in rendering help to Sri Lanka. It was in 2021, that the Thailand Prime Minister General Prayut assured to continue Thailand’s assistance towards Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 crisis recovery along with technical cooperation in the domains of fisheries, agriculture, and artificial rainmaking. To avoid an imminent food crisis, Sri Lanka has already signed an agreement with Myanmar for the import of rice. Under the agreement, Myanmar would sell up to 1000,000 metric tons of white rice and 50,000 metric tons of parboiled rice to Sri Lanka. In the case of Nepal and Bhutan, the other two Himalayan member states of BIMSTEC, no reports have surfaced indicating that these countries have rendered help to Sri Lanka. Reports just indicate that the Bhutanese Embassy in Dhaka is in contact with Bhutanese students living in Sri Lanka. The Embassy is assisting its students by providing consular services and so on.
According to the deal (May 2021), Sri Lanka was supposed to repay the loan within three months, however, as the country is facing a severe economic crisis, the Bangladesh Bank directors have decided to extend the loan term.
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Anasua Basu Ray Chaudhury is Senior Fellow with ORFsRead More +