Repatriation of Sri Lankan refugees from Tamil Nadu on the up

The number of Sri Lankan refugees returning to their homeland from Tamil Nadu under the voluntary repatriation programme of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has witnessed an uptick over the past few years. As many as 57 Sri Lankan refugees residing in various camps across the State left for their native land on Tuesday alone, The Hindu newspaper reported.

According to UNHCR sources, 39 and 18 refugees flew out of Tiruchi and Chennai airports respectively on Tuesday morning.

“A total of 57 refugees left for Sri Lanka and another 36 are set to leave on July 27,” said a source. As many as 396 refugees were repatriated in 2014, followed by 452 and 852 in 2015 and 2016 respectively, UNHCR sources said, adding that a total of 809 refugees have returned to their homeland since January this year. The Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation (OfERR), which works for the welfare of Sri Lankan refugees, underscored the need to resume ferry services for the voluntary repatriation programme. “Once the ferry services resume, the refugees would be able to take back more of their belongings, which in turn would encourage more of them to opt for repatriation,” said OfERR founder S.C. Chandrahasan. As per official figures from the Tamil Nadu government, a total of 62,629 refugees from 19,248 families are living in 107 camps spread across 24 districts across the State, while another 36,794 refugees are staying elsewhere, as on June 1 this year. A total of 3,04,269 refugees came to Tamil Nadu following the ethnic violence in the island nation in 1983.

According to a policy note tabled in the Assembly by the State government, the refugees who are willing to go back to Sri Lanka on their own are issued exit permits by the District Collectors concerned. “To mitigate the hardship of those willing to return and to expedite the process, a simplified procedure has been formulated and implemented,” it states.

Officials pointed out that the government has, since January 2016, been implementing a waiver of the overstay penalty for those refugees who intend to return to their country of origin of their own accord, and in some cases, even waiving off the visa fees. “There is a committee headed by the Public Secretary that decides, on a case-by-case basis, the applications from refugees seeking waiver of overstay penalty and visa fee,” an official said.

As on June 1 this year, a total of 278 families comprising 575 persons have availed of this waiver. (Colombo Gazette)