AT 2.30 last Monday morning, K Thangaraja, a 46-year-old tractor driver from eastern Sri Lanka, stood knee-deep in seawater fearing his end was near.
Surrounding him was the murky confluence of the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean – the barrier between his home in Sri Lanka and a new life in India.
Five hours earlier, a fisherman had pushed Thangaraja and 19 relatives, including young children, from his 26ft wooden boat and on to a shallow sand bank. “Someone will be along shortly to take you to the Indian coast,” he said, before hurrying off into the darkness.
No one came. Not until 4.30 the following afternoon, when they were nearly unconscious from exhaustion, hunger, and dehydration. An Indian fishing vessel happened to spot their improvised white flags and brought them ashore.
“It was the worst experience of my life,” said Thangaraja. “If I had to do it all over again, I would take my chances in Sri Lanka.”
Yet for Tamils now caught in the crossfire of an increasingly bloody civil war in Sri Lanka, staying is not an option.
Last Wednesday, at least 23 civilians were killed and more than 100 injured when government shells slammed into a school in a LTTE-controlled area.
Since January, more than 16,000 refugees from Sri Lanka’s Jaffna peninsula have fled to the shores of Tamil Nadu, India’s southeastern state, where they fan out in refugee camps across the region and receive basic support from the Indian government.
The refugees who have arrived in India constitute only a small fraction of nearly 200,000 who have been displaced since April.
But they represent some of the most desperate cases – those who have given up hope for a quick end to hostilities and are trying to start anew.
“It is an expensive and difficult journey to the Tamil Nadu coast,” said Meenakshi Ganguly of the New York-based Human Rights Watch. “These are people who are so terrified that they believe survival is impossible back home.”
The number of monthly arrivals has decreased significantly since August, when over 5,700 arrived on the shores of southern India; so far this month less than 200 have arrived.
That is partly because of the weather – rough seas and thunderstorms make the crossing far more perilous in November and December. It is also due to the hope many Sri Lankans had for the peace talks that took place but broke apart with no resolution last month.
With the surge in recent violence, aid workers are expecting an increase in the number of arrivals in the coming weeks and months ahead.
The cost of being smuggled to India is anywhere from 6,000 to 15,000 Sri Lankan rupees. It is the equivalent of just £29 to £73 but refugees often sell property or family jewellery to pay for the smuggling and carry with them only a small satchel of clothes, often tossed overboard if the journey becomes too rough.
It is not the first time India has hosted Tamil refugees. Tens of thousands have come in successive waves since the war began in 1983.
Manoharan Bijayaraj, 49, arrived in late September, his third time in India.
As a union activist for Tamil fishing cooperatives in eastern Sri Lanka he was shot seven times in an attempt on his life in early September. He still experiences a dull pain around the pink two-inch vertical scar below his left arm where a bullet lodged itself.
“They want to wipe out us Tamils,” he said. “There is no solution through military means, nor through dialogue. UN Peacekeepers must come to Sri Lanka.”
The official conduit for new arrivals in India is the Mandapam transit camp, a fenced-off series of dilapidated one-story cement apartment blocks with communal water taps.
It was originally established and controlled by the British until 1964 as a transit site for thousands of poor Indians being sent to sprawling tea estates in Sri Lanka and elsewhere in the Commonwealth. Today they come in the other direction.
Mandapam has more than 5,000 residents, the majority of whom have been there for months, waiting to relocate elsewhere in Tamil Nadu state.
Although conditions in the camp are substandard, its leaders are reticent to voice their concerns too loudly.
“We do not complain about the conditions because just next to us there are Indian citizens who don’t get even what we get,” said SC Chandrahassan, an officer with the Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation, which helps run the 130 refugee camps throughout Tamil Nadu.
The Indian government provides the refugees with 400 Indian rupees, about £1.94, a month per head of household and a little less for every other member, as well as cooking materials, a refugee ID card, and rice subsidised to 1983 prices, which comes to less than a couple pennies a kilo, far below what Indians receive on social security.
Work, and not just the flight from risk of arrest or attack, is another major reason refugees cite for opting for a new life in India. They can join the informal economy, taking jobs in rural areas that poor Indians don’t want as the vast country’s economy surges ahead.
Vikram Raja, 36, a mason who arrived in early September with his wife and three young children, starts sitting by the highway every morning looking to be picked up for a day’s work. He has worked two days in two months, but doesn’t regret the move.
“My life was in danger there,” he said. “The army will arrest anyone without any grounds.”
His home was destroyed in the 2004 tsunami. His mother, father and sister live in displaced persons camps in Sri Lanka, but Raja wanted the opportunity to provide for his family and not sit idly in a camp, which he considers unsafe.
Raja, like many refugees with children, was also increasingly concerned for the safety of his son.
“If anything happened to my children we would be without any help,” he said.