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Fleeing genocide, torture and now an economic crisis – Tamil refugees arrive in India

At least 16 Eelam Tamils have been detained by Indian authorities after fleeing the island this week, citing the worsening economic crisis in Sri Lanka as a factor that forced them to leave.

The 16 Tamils, who arrived in two groups, included women and children with the youngest being just 4 months old. They all come from the North-East, arriving in India on Tuesday 22 March. The mother of the four-month old child said "We can't live there, the prices of everything have increased; that's why we came here". Her husband added: "There are no work opportunities there ... a day's wages is low there".

However, upon arrival, the groups were detained. According to reports, the first group attempted to land at Dhanushkodi in Tamil Nadu, but the man who brought them there forced them to disembark and left them stranded. Three adults from the first group have since been sentenced to 15 days judicial custody at Puzhal central prison near Chennai.

The detention of the Eelam Tamil refugees led to the hashtag #StopArrestingEelamTamils trend on social media, as outrage grew over the arrests.

“I think the Indian government should consider granting refugee status to these people on humanitarian grounds as the economic situation in Sri Lanka has precipitated a humanitarian crisis,” said Poongkothai Chandrahasan, Managing Director, Serendip Be The Change Foundation. “With acute food shortage, underprivileged families are unable to even feed their children.”

For decades Eelam Tamils have fled Sri Lanka, amidst years of human rights abuses, violence from the security forces and impunity for crimes. However, the current economic crisis has now added to the burden.

“Construction workers and daily wagers are struggling due to inflation across the country…More people are likely to leave the country unless the economy stabilises,” said the outfit Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front’s Suresh Premachandran.

“Many people whom I know are planning to leave Sri Lanka, some have relatives in Indian camps, some have contacts in Tamil Nadu,” added Mannar-based activist V S Sivakaran. “There is panic and anxiety about tomorrow. It is almost certain that the price of rice will touch Rs (Sri Lankan) 500/ kg in another week. Today, it is Rs 290/kg of rice, Rs 290/kg of sugar and Rs 790 for 400 grams of milk powder.”

As the financial crisis worsens, intelligence officers in Tamil Nadu, are reportedly expecting “around 2,000 refugees” in the coming weeks.

Tens of thousands of Eelam refugees remain in camps in Tamil Nadu, often in difficult conditions and without any support. Many refugees from Eelam fled Sri Lankan state oppression and have been living in Tamil Nadu for about three decades. Despite this the Indian government refuses to grant them citizenship.

File photograph: Eelam refugees in Tamil Nadu, 2012. Courtesy EC/ECHO Arjun Claire

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