By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan

For the first time in the history of South Asia, people fled to another country citing the economic crisis and have sought asylum. In this instance, 16 Sri Lankan Tamil families fled to Tamil Nadu, just 23 km across The Palk Strait, while the Tamil Nadu Government is working on an action plan to repatriate thousands of the Sri Lankan war refugees residing in several camps in India, even some residing in the state of Odisha as stateless for two decades or so. 

The Government of Sri Lanka is silent so far on this fresh issue of people fleeing to India citing the economic crisis.  

Many people took to social media to criticise those who fled, claiming that while they are fleeing to Tamil Nadu, a large number of tourists are flocking to Sri Lanka to draw a line that everything is fine. The plight of the poor, who have been hard-hit by the economic crisis is, however, the worst of its kind in the history of the Nation, where even Indian States like Kerala have been commending the literacy rate of the Sri Lankan population. 

MLA of Vilavancode constituency, All India Mahila Congress General Secretary, Tamil Nadu Assembly CLP Chief Whip, Supreme Court Advocate, Vijayadharani tweeted: I have requested in the assembly that the Government of Tamil Nadu should come forward to help the Tamil people suffering from the economic crisis in Sri Lanka.

Indian Aerospace Defence News tweeted that the first batch of Tamils from Sri Lanka have been booked under “The Passport Act and The Foreigners Act” for illegally entering Tamil Nadu, India. They were arrested by Tamil Nadu Marine Police and sent to Puzhal Central Jail in Chennai for further interrogation, Defence News further said. 

Those who fled to Tamil Nadu by boat from Jaffna and Mannar, have told the Tamil Nadu Media there are more people waiting to flee to India in the coming months.

The quandary is how would these new illegal immigrants be identified and can the Indian Government arrest them and repatriate or accept them under a new economic refugees category, as there is no war to register them as war refugees. In fact, can they be called refugees per se.

According to Amnesty International, the terms “refugee”, “asylum-seeker” and “migrant” are used to describe people who are on the move, who have left their countries and have crossed borders. The terms “migrant” and “refugee” are often used interchangeably, but it is important to distinguish between them, as there is a legal difference.

An economic refugee, according to Julia Kagan, former Editor of Consumer Reports, is a person who leaves his or her home country in search of better job prospects and higher living standards elsewhere. Economic refugees see little opportunity to escape poverty in their own countries and are willing to start over in a new country for the chance at a better life. She further explains that economic refugees are often not legally of refugee status, which is reserved for those seeking to escape violence or conflict. According to reports, the United States of America is traditionally known for economic refugees.

UN Refugee Agency

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, there were 82.4 million forcibly displaced people worldwide at the end of 2020 as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations and events seriously disturbing public order.

Despite the Nation’s current economic crisis, no one expected people to flee the country, but 16 families fled to Tamil Nadu on boats last week, making the Indian Government wonder whether to accept them as economic refugees or not.

Following the comments made by these fleeing people that more are planning to come to Tamil Nadu, the Indian Coast Guard is on alert and has stepped up patrols.

The irony is that while the Indian fishing community is disgusted with the Sri Lankan Government for arresting their fishermen and confiscating their boats, the Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen are protesting illegal poaching by Indian fishermen using bottom trawlers. Thus, there is a great deal of confusion now as the Tamils seek asylum once more in Tamil Nadu. The conflict between Tamil fishing communities in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka’s Northern Tamils has caused diplomatic snarls, which both India and Sri Lanka are attempting to resolve.

The fresh issue of Sri Lankans fleeing to Tamil Nadu has been however ‘welcomed’ by the Tamil Nadu people. Those who fled were taken to camps and given food and shelter without showing any remorse. 

The Tamil Nadu Government as well as the Sri Lankans are well aware of boat people reaching Australia and Tamil Nadu by boat during the war and they were called refugees of war or war refugees.

Six Sri Lankan citizens, including three children, were arrested on Tuesday (22) in Jaffna and Kokupadayan in the northern region, allegedly fleeing unemployment and food shortages. They were rescued from an island near the Tamil Nadu town of Rameswaram. Gajendran (24), his wife Mary Clarine (22), and their 4-month-old son have been identified, as have Tiori Anistan (28), and her two children, aged six and nine.

They also said they paid fishermen around Rs 50,000 for dropping them off on the fourth island off the coast of Arichal Munai in Indian waters. “As a result of the acute shortage of food and fuel, as well as a lack of income, many more families are finding ways to flee to India,” they added.

“We have no idea who brought us here or who sent us here.” We were given this person’s contact information by a family member. Another woman said, “There were not many boats on that shore, but there was only one boat waiting for us.”

High cost of living

Then another family of 10 fled from the shores of Mannar to reach Tamil Nadu. They told the Indian Media there are many more people getting ready to take the boat journey to Tamil Nadu, as they are unable to live in Sri Lanka with the high cost of living. Officials said this second group of ten persons reached on a fibre boat, and had left the Mannar coast on Monday night. After the boat developed a technical issue, they had to spend a day repairing it in the middle of the sea before reaching the Pamban Bridge around 9:00 p.m. on Tuesday night.

Most of the Tamils in the North and the East lived in Tamil Nadu for a short and long period of time during the war. They know how to reach Tamil Nadu and come back to Sri Lanka by boat and have come with the assistance of a Refugee Agency. 

Also, many who fled to India returned with Indian spouses and have a link to Tamil Nadu families.  

The persons who fled to Tamil Nadu last week told the Tamil Nadu TV reporters who gathered around the family, that they cannot cope with the cost of living. There was no other reason for them to flee, they said. One of them said the economic crisis is the worst in Sri Lanka and he had never seen such a crisis before. He said rice, petrol, kerosene, bread and milk power and all the basic food and other commodities have shot up due to inflation. We left around 9:00 p.m. and the engine also cut out, he added. 

“My family is from Jaffna, but I work in Mannar. It is difficult to feed my family with my daily wage.” His wife says they preferred to die at sea or live in Tamil Nadu. “We took that risk with our children.”

Apparently, the anchor of the boat had broken and the boat was drifting for a while. They had been mid-sea for several hours before they fixed the boat. 

“We have no other reason to leave but the cost of living.” When a Tamil Media journalist asked what made them to decide to come to India, they said they want to live. When asked what about their children’s education, the wife of the man said she wanted to educate her children. She said in Sri Lanka they found it difficult to feed them and have a normal life under the current circumstances. 

They spoke about the cost of living in Sri Lanka. “1 kg of rice is around Rs 250 to Rs 300 and bread is above Rs 100, no kerosene and petrol.” “It was my own boat and I bore the expenses, the man on the second batch journey said. He said he came with his family as well as with his sister’s family. “I needed only Rs 15,000 to purchase food items and diesel for the boat,” he said. 

He also said in 2009 his family had fled to Tamil Nadu and returned to Sri Lanka in 2012 with the assistance of the UN Refugee Agency, who issued them the air tickets. 

They also said they have relatives in Tamil Nadu, but they braved going to Tamil Nadu. “We decided to die mid-sea or live in Tamil Nadu,” Sivasangari, a mother of two said. “We thought if we die let the body float in the water.” Another man said he is a brick maker and with his Rs 3,000 earning he could take care of his family in the past. He added that his income is not sufficient with the skyrocketing prices of goods.

He also said how shops and vendors quote different prices and exploit the poor. Each shop has different prices for the same item. There is exploitation everywhere, he added. 

Having landed on the shore of Dhanushkodi, these people were met by Tamil Nadu politicians. One of them, speaking to the Media, said the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and the Prime Minister of India should take immediate steps to protect those coming to Tamil Nadu. He also said they have come due to the economic crisis and they should not be booked as illegal migrants.

He said these people were coming due to no food and jobs and they should be allowed to stay on humanitarian grounds.

 “They braved the sea and crossed the ocean to live and have food,” the local politician said. “It’s our duty to protect those who seek our help.”

Express News Service from Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu, reported that with the economic crisis in Sri Lanka spiralling, coastal delta fishermen in Tamil Nadu had said Sri Lankan fishermen have started approaching them at sea with desperate requests for food, fuel and even liquor. The TN fishers said they’d shared some uncooked rice, alcohol and even cooked flavoured rice with the Lankans.  

Palk Bay fishermen set out to sea with cooking essentials and other supplies to meet their needs over the day-and-a-half-long trip. 

“Recently, some of us came across some Lankan fishers mid-sea. They requested our men to give them any extra food items and supplies. In the past, they have violently demanded our materials, but this time they appeared very desperate and sought our help very politely,” recounted a fisher from Kodiyakarai in Nagapattinam District on the condition of anonymity.

“We normally know Sri Lankans approaching us at sea means trouble. But this time, to our surprise, they asked for our essentials politely,” a fishermen from Jegathapattinam in Pudukkottai District said. However, some of the other fishers had said they had shared extra uncooked rice and liquor with them.   

However, the Fisheries Department was not amused to learn of these encounters, as they come amid regular arrests of TN fishers by the Sri Lanka Navy, including last Thursday. “We are issuing tokens only for fishing, not for any other activity. We advise the fishers to stay away from the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL),” said K.S. Palanisamy, the Commissioner of Fisheries Department.

Prof. Rohan Samarajiva told NDTV that a large number of middle-class Sri Lankans have left the country, but the poor have nowhere to go. Sri Lanka, he continued, is a highly unequal country in terms of income, far worse than Nepal and Bangladesh. He also said mismanagement is the root of the current crisis.

He also said the Sri Lankan Tamils have been political refugees, and that if the crisis is not controlled, the number of people fleeing to Tamil Nadu could increase.

N. Ram of the Hindu Group of publications said those who came should be treated humanely, as they had no food. He also laid blame on the Sri Lankan Government, even though they managed the pandemic. 

He pointed out that the Tamils are again seeing the military doing civilian tasks, attending to agriculture etc. and their memories are fresh with the war circumstances. He said he is alarmed over the US dollar rate and it’s a fully-fledged economic crisis in Sri Lanka. 

Kasthuri, a Tamil Nadu actress and activist, said Sri Lanka has always relied on bailouts, and that providing more loans to the country will not solve the problem, and that the country’s economic crisis will spill over into India. If people begin to leave the country illegally, India and Sri Lanka would be in a pickle, having no system to recognise economic refugees.

Economic migrants do not receive the same benefits as refugees fleeing war or oppression by the State. 

India should ensure that Sri Lanka emerges from its economic quagmire, and that Sri Lanka finds a long-term solution, rather than relying on short-term fixes such as obtaining loans to stay in power. 

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