Cablegate: Sri Lankan Refugees in India Unlikely to Return Anytime

DE RUEHCG #0317/01 3030503
R 300503Z OCT 09






E.O. 12958: N/A


1. (SBU) Summary: Despite the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of
Tamil Eelam and cessation of hostilities in Sri Lanka, the Sri
Lankan refugees in Tamil Nadu are unlikely to return to their
homeland anytime soon. Release of internally displaced persons
(IDPs) from confinement in IDP camps is a precondition to the
refugees even considering return to the island. Refugee fears of
human rights abuses in Sri Lanka are another impediment; one that
will be more difficult to address in the long term because the
information sources on which the refugees rely stoke paranoia about
the Rajapaksa government. Finally, the length of time the refugees
have spent in India (many have been here for more than 20 years)
weighs against a quick return. End summary.

2. (SBU) Pol/Econ officer met with a group of 46 Sri Lankan
refugees to discuss their views on the possibility of returning to
their homeland now that hostilities on the island nation have
ceased. The Organization for Eelam Refugee Rehabilitation (OfERR)
pulled together a group drawn from the more than 70,000 Sri Lankan
refugees that live in camps spread throughout Tamil Nadu. Pol/Econ
officer spent almost three hours asking and taking questions in a
candid interchange with the refugees. While virtually all expressed
a longing to return Sri Lanka, they are taking the long view: not
one raised their hand when we asked if they believed that they would
be back in Sri Lanka by 2015. Their answers revealed that the
conditions facing Sri Lanka's internally displaced Tamil population,
security concerns, and distrust of the Rajapaksa government all
stand in the way of the refugee population in India returning home
to Sri Lanka.

IDP camps are first obstacle

3. (SBU) Concern for Tamils interned in the IDP camps dominated the
three hour session. The refugees described the camps in Sri Lanka
as "concentration camps" and "prisons." Those refugees that had
family members in the camps expressed concern for their well-being.
They recited a litany of complaints about conditions in the camps,
including lack of adequate food and water, overcrowding, and poor
treatment by the Sri Lankan military. In addition to concern for
family members in the camps, fear of ending up there themselves is a
significant bar to return. Refugees from one camp said they spoke
to a man from their camp who was sent to an IDP camp after he went
back to Sri Lanka last month. Gladston Xavier, an Indian social
scientist who works closely with OfERR (and a former Fulbright
grantee), told pol/econ officer "none of the refugees" from the
north and east of Sri Lanka will consider returning while the IDP
camps remain open.

4. (SBU) The refugees said they learned about conditions in the IDP
camps by speaking to people in and around the camps. One
participant said that he had received a phone call from his daughter
in one of the IDP camps earlier in the day. According to Xavier,
phones are not permitted in the camps, but a significant number of
IDPs have them and communicate with their families in India.

Looking to the world to guarantee their safety

5. (SBU) Xavier, who had led a workshop for the assembled refugees
that preceded their meeting with pol/econ officer, said that
emptying the IDP camps is necessary, but not sufficient to induce
the refugees to return. He said that the refugees feel that an
"assurance of safety" and a "durable solution" are preconditions for
their return to Sri Lanka. Many of the refugees said that they
expected the "international community" to guarantee their security
before they would consider returning to Sri Lanka. Some refugees
were more specific about which members of the international
community they looked to. One woman said that the government of
India must "make us believe that it is safe for us to go;" others
told pol/economic officer that they wanted President Obama and the
United States military to ensure their safety.

6. (SBU) The perception of widespread human rights violations in
Sri Lanka animated the refugees' demand for an international
guarantor of their safety. A refugee said she feels that nothing
has changed in Sri Lanka, citing the continued extrajudicial
killings of Tamils. One man said that he did not want to risk
bringing his children to Sri Lanka, where they could be abducted by
the "white vans." Another man scoffed at the elections in the
Northern Province, asking "how can you have an election when 300,000
people are being held in camps?" The refugees also mentioned the
government of Sri Lanka's efforts to "colonize" and "occupy"
formerly Tamil areas by moving Sinhalese people into them.

CHENNAI 00000317 002 OF 003

7. (SBU) V. Suryanarayanan, a noted Sri Lanka analyst and member of
India's National Security Advisory Board, agreed that the insecurity
of Sri Lanka's Tamil population will deter the refugees from
returning to the island. He said that the "importance of security
to the refugees is unquantifiable," noting that many of the Tamils
who left Sri Lanka did so for the security of their children. They
will not return to the island, he said, until they know their
children will be safe. Suryanarayanan was pessimistic about when
that day would come. He said that he did not believe President
Rajapaksa is capable of creating an environment that will draw the
Tamil refugees back.

Long-standing ties bind some to India

8. (SBU) The length of time the refugees have spent in India, with
many of them having arrived in the late 1980s and early 1990s,
weighs against a quick return to Sri Lanka. At least three of the
refugees offered the fact that they have been in India "for more
than 20 years" as a reason to go slow when considering return to Sri
Lanka. Many refugees have married Indian citizens, and Xavier noted
that women who have married Indian men are especially likely to stay
in India permanently (but Sri Lankan men who have married Indian
women are more likely to try to bring their Indian wives back to Sri
Lanka). Children born in India to refugees create a tough situation
for refugee parents. One woman said her Indian-born children told
her that they would stay in India even if she went back to Sri
Lanka, saying "you know about Sri Lanka but we don't know anything
about it." On the other hand, a twenty-year old refugee who was
born in India told pol/econ officer that she wants to go back to Sri
Lanka because India is only a "temporary place" to her.

Unreliable sources fuel paranoia of Rajapaksa government

9. (SBU) The unreliable sources the refugees rely upon for news
about Sri Lanka exacerbate their fears. In addition to what Xavier
described as "the same inflammatory" Tamil web sites (referring to
websites like the pro-LTTE and its Tamil language
counterparts), the refugees get news from their families on the
island, who are prone to exaggerating things according to Xavier.
Absurd statements are accepted as fact: one man credulously
asserted that the Sri Lankan military had used nuclear weapons
during the final assault on Mullaitivu. Xavier said many of the
refugees believe that the Sri Lankan military used chemical and
biological weapons. Rumors and conspiracy theories flow freely
through the refugee community. One refugee said families of
captured LTTE fighters have been rounded up and disappeared.
Another claimed that the Sri Lankan army was not providing
sufficient food to the IDPs.

UNHCR says resettlement will take time

10. (SBU) Vidjea Barathy, Associate Repatriation Officer, United
Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR Chennai), whose office
oversees the process of resettlement of Sri Lankan refugees, told
post that approximately 500 refugees have chosen to return this
year. Barathy cautioned that this figure only includes official
repatriations of Sri Lankans who have officially registered as
refugees, but does not include returns from the substantial
population of Sri Lankans living in India without official refugee
status. Barathy added that there has been a modest increase in
returns since hostilities on the island ceased in May. "But it is
too early to tell whether this is a trend," he said. All of the
2009 repatriations have been to the Eastern province because the
UNHCR does not send people back to the North except in cases of
terminally ill refugees.

11. (SBU) Barathy does not expect a significant amount of
resettlement of Sri Lankans in the near term. "There will be no
major movement before mid-2010 at the very earliest," according to
Barathy, with the refugees waiting to see the IDP camps closed and
how the returning IDPs are treated. Barathy believes the return
will be "phased," with recent arrivees returning sooner and
long-term refugees waiting longer. The process will "take some
time, all 70,000 of them are not going to go back at once." Barathy
said that the refugees' assessment of the safety situation and their
economic prospects will determine whether they return. He believes
that an active role by the Government of India will be crucial; the
refugees need "some level of assurance" that India will be
monitoring how the majority Sinhala community treats them when they
are back in Sri Lanka.

Comment: no rush to return

CHENNAI 00000317 003 OF 003

12. (SBU) Comment: Although the war in Sri Lanka is over, the
refugee community is not likely to return to Sri Lanka in
substantial numbers any time soon. Information flows freely between
the island and Tamil Nadu, and the refugees do not like what they
are hearing from their fellow Tamils back home. Freeing the IDPs is
necessary, but not sufficient on its own to convince the refugees
that it is time to go home. Mistrust of the Rajapaksa government's
human rights record runs high, leading to perhaps unrealistic
expectations that the international community will actively
facilitate their safe reintegration in Sri Lanka. Their long period
of refuge -- many of the Sri Lankans have spent most or all of their
lives in India -- has firmly rooted them in India. India's
government, especially the state, has been a generous host. Tamil
Nadu generally provides the refugees the same programs and services
it does to its own citizens, including subsidized food, basic health
care, and education. The state even provides each refugee with a
modest cash transfer payment each month, something it does not
provide to its own citizens. Post believes that the vast majority
of the refugees are here to stay for at least a few years, and that
a substantial number would stay permanently if given the
opportunity. End comment.


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