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Refugee flow into Tamil Nadu unrelenting

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Sri Lankan Tamils fleeing violence in their country continue to pour into India, and some Indian officials feel that the escalation in hostilities could shoot up their numbers.

The total arrival since January is sneaking up to 6,000, and officials say around 2,000 men, women and children are now camping in Sri Lanka’s northwestern district of Mannar to sail to Tamil Nadu.

“The number reaching Tamil Nadu each day is less than a hundred but they continue to come non-stop,” a senior official in Chennai told IANS on telephone. “At one time over 200 people came on a single day but that is not the case now.”

The over 5,800 Tamils who have come in so far are drawn from 1,838 families. The total arrival during Aug 1-3 was 157.

Most of those now hitting the Indian shores are no more from Trincomalee in the island’s east, from where the first wave of Tamil refugees came Jan 12 and where Sri Lankan troops are locked in heavy fighting with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The more recent groups are mainly from Mannar, which lies closest to the Tamil Nadu shore.

“The people who are now coming are not from Trincomalee. This could be because they are not able to reach Mannar due to the (security) situation. Or maybe they are caught up somewhere,” the official said.

Tamil Nadu, separated from Sri Lanka by a narrow strip of sea, has been a sanctuary for Tamils from the island since 1983 when anti-Tamil violence fuelled the very first inflow of refugees.

There are over 100 refugee centres in Tamil Nadu, which is home to thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils, many of whom live on their own without government doles.

But in contrast to the past, the refugee inflow is today strictly regulated. Indian security agencies photograph and fingerprint them and also question them at length to determine their possible links with the LTTE.

The latest refugees have the same grouse: that they are being harassed and threatened by the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan security forces and they prefer India to getting caught in the crossfire or going into LTTE areas.

Because the Sri Lankan Navy has enforced a virtual night blockade of the sea to prevent refugees from making it to India, many journey at dawn, reaching Tamil Nadu during the day. The boatmen charge thousands of rupees for each passenger.

Indian authorities think the refugees - some of whom had lived in Tamil Nadu earlier but went back to Sri Lanka after the 2002 Norwegian-brokered ceasefire - will keep coming for weeks and probably months to come.

There is also a feeling that Tamils will flee in larger numbers from Trincomalee once the current spell of fighting between the military and the LTTE abates - if it does.

“Those displaced due to fighting in Mutur (in Trincomalee) are Muslims. They will not want to come to India. They will proceed to other areas in Sri Lanka itself,” another central government official said. “But later, perhaps, more Tamils may flee Trincomalee.”

The Tamil Nadu government has said it will take steps to improve the living conditions in the refugee camps. It has also increased the cash doles given away to the inmates.

“For most refugees living below the poverty line, especially women and children, families headed by single women and physically disadvantaged people, this hike is a great boon,” said S.C. Chandrahasan of the Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation, an NGO that for years has worked among Sri Lankan refugees.

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