During the civil war that lasted a quarter of a century, tens of thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils fled their homes as family members were killed, injured or went missing without a trace. The survivors of the conflict arrived in India in boats, traumatized and deeply scarred, often with just the clothes on their back. There are currently over one lakh refugees in Tamil Nadu with a little over sixty thousand living in refugee camps, and OfERR’s foremost mission is to be a voice for these survivors – by not just articulating their rights but also lobbying and undertaking diplomatic measures to provide them education and job opportunities, empowering them to lead a life of dignity in their adopted country.
OfERR’s first success with advocacy was the effort to admit Sri Lankan refugee children into primary schools in Tamil Nadu in the absence of any birth certificates or school records. OfERR staff worked with political leaders in the state, the rehabilitation director and the Education Minister, resulting in the government passing a resolution to admit these children into Tamil Nadu schools on basis of the age of the child as declared by the parents. This program began in the 1980s and continues till date. The Indian government also allows quotas in higher education courses such as law, engineering and medicine for refugee students. Similarly, when 29,000 refugees from Mullaiteevu fled their homeland as the war escalated in 2006-07, OfERR spoke up on behalf of the 400 youths who were waiting to take their Std X examinations by petitioning the Deputy High Commissioner to conduct the exams in India. For the first time, this exam was conducted outside Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan High Commission sent staff to India to conduct these exams and the papers were sent back to Colombo for evaluation and declaration of results.
OfERR also petitioned the central and state government to ensure that any refugees being repatriated to Sri Lanka were returning voluntarily and not by force. In 1991, for the first time, the central government invited the UNHCR to Rameshwaram to establish these details and prevent forced repatriation. In 2007, citing law and order problems in Tamil Nadu, driving licenses were withdrawn from all Sri Lankan Tamils by authorities. The OfERR advocacy team met the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu and the Transport Commissioner to correct the perception that refugees were responsible for compromising law and order in the state, and stressed that for many refugees, driving licenses were their means of livelihood. Following this intervention, refugees’ driving licenses were reinstated and the order to withdraw them was cancelled with immediate effect.
One of OfERR’s current goals is to help refugees obtain important documents to become Sri Lankan citizens, thereby enabling them to receive employment upon repatriation, to buy land or to get a passport and travel overseas for education or work. From 1984, roughly 24,000 children have been born in refugee camps to Sri Lankan parents. OfERR is working with the High Commission and the Inspector General of Registration to register marriages of the parents, acquire birth certificates for the children and apply for Sri Lankan citizenship based on these documents. So far, 1700 such marriages have been successfully registered and 12,000 children are ready to apply for Sri Lankan citizenship, while 12,000 are in the process of getting these papers in order. OfERR’s Sri Lanka office assists the process by sending the parents’ birth certificates and has so far helped nearly 3000 refugees.
The impact of the advocacy work started in 1984 is felt today, over thirty years later, when the Sri Lankan Education Minister lobbies for the voluntary return of refugees who have been given a good education in India and can now help rebuild their motherland. Our peaceful struggle continues, while we undertake serious efforts to return the generosity of the Tamil Nadu government by coming to the aid of their people during the tsunami or the floods. OfERR believes that this is a chance for refugees to give back to the community who supported them during the war. OfERR continues to maintain diplomatic relations with ambassadors, political leaders and high commissioners, keeping in mind the goal of a better life for refugees until their voluntary return to their homeland.