The Castaways: The Life of Sri Lankan Refugees

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They fled home only to be confined to subhuman conditions in the so-called special camps of Tamil Nadu 

ON 5 MAY 2014, Ramekka fled Sri Lanka for Tamil Nadu by sea with her husband and two children. They came ashore to what looked like a welcome party of policemen. To their shock, they were taken into custody and booked for a violation of India’s Foreigners Act, 1946. Thirty-two years old at the time, she was lodged in Puzhal central prison along with her 12-year-old daughter Nilaxana. Her husband and six-year-old son were taken to another prison.

Nabbed under Section 14 of the Act, which deals with the presence of non-citizens on Indian territory without permission, the family was produced before a magistrate. They got bail, but were still sent to a ‘special camp’. At the trial, Ramekka pleaded guilty and was sentenced to one year’s imprisonment. Once her jail term ended on 4 May 2015, however, she was not released. In a writ petition submitted to the Madras High Court on 13 July 2015, asking to be let free, she explains what drew the family to the country: ‘I and my husband are Sri Lankan citizens, we have two children. We were affected by the genocide and were kept in a camp in Sri Lanka. To save our lives, we fled and reached Tamil Nadu by sea.’

The petition made no difference. “The writ was posted for argument several times. She never got a release order,” says P Pukazhenti, a lawyer who is also an activist fighting for the rights of prisoners. “By that time, she had been transferred to [a special camp for refugees], and the writ thus became ineffectual.” The Q Branch of the Tamil Nadu Police took Ramekka’s husband Suthakaran to a camp at Cheyyaram, while she and her children were sent to one in Mandapam, Rameshwaram.

“Special camps are worse than prisons,” says Pukazhenti, “There is no rule of law here. There are no statutory guidelines for their maintenance. In the Premavathy and others vs State of Tamil Nadu case, the High Court stipulated regulations for running a special camp that would guard human rights. Unfortunately, these judicial verdicts are hardly observed by the police.”

Unlike regular refugee settlements, which allow refugees to leave and enter on some conditions, special camps are designed to hold people captive under tight security. There are watch towers, multiple stages of entry, focus lights and machine-gun posts. Only family members are allowed to visit. Neither journalists nor activists are granted entry. Life within is reported to be extremely harsh. “Hunger strikes and suicide attempts happen quite often,” says Pukazhenti, “Depression is rampant among inmates.” Many would rather be in jail, which would afford them the luxury of parole, at least, and of visitors who don’t have to prove they are blood relations.

THE EXODUS OF Tamils from Sri Lanka began in 1983, right after ‘Black July’, an anti-Tamil pogrom that claimed around 3,000 lives there. The violence was in retaliation to a deadly ambush by Tamil rebels on 23 July 1983 that killed 13 Sri Lankan soldiers. In the months that followed, an estimated 100,000 Tamil speakers had left the largely Sinhalese island nation for the safety of Indian shores.

In Tamil Nadu, most of them were welcome, thanks to traditional ties of kinship across the Palk Strait coupled with reports of their sufferings, which had by then stirred sentiments strong enough to play a role in Tamil Nadu politics as well. The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 by an LTTE hit squad, however, was a rude shock to them. Almost overnight, they started being looked upon with suspicion. Demonised as potential terrorists, many of them were rounded up for alleged LTTE links—often on very sketchy evidence—and kept under watch. This is how the special camps came into existence.

With many political parties calling for the eviction of all Sri Lankan Tamils from the country, what were once seashore transit camps for their influx—in Mandapam, for example—were fortified and thousands of refugees packed off to them. Only those whose antecedents were held above suspicion were spared. “In my understanding, there were around 2,000 ‘suspect militants’ in these camps in 1992. It is an irony that until the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, many of these special camps were denoted as ‘training camps’ for militants who enjoyed state support,” says P Sreekumar, a research scholar doing a PhD thesis that compares India’s refugee detention policy with Canada’s.

Many would rather be in jail, which would afford them the luxury of parole and of visitors who don’t have to prove they are blood relations

Over time, those camps became de facto prisons for any Tamil refugee picked up by the authorities, places where they’d be held for indefinite periods of time. Despite their ill-treatment, though, the influx of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka did not abate until the end of its civil war a few years ago. Today, their count is unknown, and thousands are said to have vanished into the crowd.

Sadly, their legal status being undefined has thrown their right to justice under Indian law into a grey zone. Many who are locked up for some petty crime find there is no end to their incarceration. At the end of their term, they are arrested by the Q Branch and put right back. Legal aid is hard to come by. Ramekka and her family are among the few who have opted to put up a fight in court. They know the risks, but the way their case pans out could set a precedent for others and help rescue the innocent.

The tag of ‘militant links’ remains hard for the accused to shake off. In a recently published book, Tholar Balan, a former refugee held in a special camp for eight-and-a-half years, narrates his struggle for justice. He came to India in 1991 with proper documents en route to Canada in the hope of joining his brother there, a Canadian citizen. But Balan was arrested by the Q Branch for an alleged LTTE connection, put in a special camp, and later charged with involvement in a couple of bomb blast cases. It took him a decade to clear his name in court. Once acquitted, he finally flew to Canada.

Given an option, other inmates of special camps would actively seek their release as well. The use of cellphones holds out hope. “There is nothing clandestine about it,” says Baheetharan, 36, an inmate of such a high-security camp in Trichy, speaking to Open over the phone, “They allow us to use mobile phones so that they can keep track of us.” Right now, there are 18 detainees at his camp, he says, but the figure keeps changing. Some are people brought in from regular camps. “These inmates are potential victims who could be detained any time and shifted to a special camp,” says Krishnasami Thyagarajan, a human rights activist who is a member of the Tamil Elam Refugee Rights Federation, which is working to secure the freedom of special camp detainees, “No cogent reason is required.”

P Sivakumar, a resident of a regular camp in Gummidipoondi, Thiruvallur district, speaks of how arbitrary the police are. “If we do something that displeases the Q Branch,” he says, “we will be shifted to special camps.” He was 12 when he reached Indian shores in 1983 with his parents, and now he serves as president of an administrative committee at his camp. “What makes our camp better than a special camp is that we have freedom of movement,” he says, “We live on bare minimum needs, have no proper sanitation, nor drinking water and housing. We have held several protests for our rights. If I have not yet been arrested and moved to a special camp, it is only because I am president here.”

Many inmates live in the expectation that the Constitution of India will come to their rescue some day. Baheetharan arrived in 2005 from Jafna, the nerve centre of Sri Lanka’s ethnic turmoil. “I came to India expecting safety and security. Initially, I lived in a rented house and registered as a refugee here. Later, I was arrested as an LTTE suspect. The allegation was that I supplied medicines to LTTE cadres. I have done nothing like that. I have been here for eight-and-a-half years. I was transferred from one camp to another, and reached this one [in Trichy] in 2013. I have no idea when I will be released. I don’t even know whether I will die here.”

Unlike regular settlements, which allow refugees to leave and enter on some conditions, special camps are designed to hold inmates captive

IN SOME WAYS, Baheetharan says, this fate is no better. “Being a prisoner convicted by a court is better than this detention in a special camp. If you are a convict, you at least know when you are to be released. There is a defined period, a definite date.” The government order for his detention does not cite any reason for it. Dated 30 March 2007, this is what it states: ‘In exercise of the powers conferred under section 3(2) of Foreigners Act,1946, the Government of Tamil Nadu for regulating the continued presence of Baheetharan, S/o Nagaraja, a Sri Lankan national here by orders that he shall reside in the special camp for Sri Lankan refugees at Chenkalpettu.’ Another order, issued in 2013, transferred him to the Trichy special camp. This document states no reason either. Nor does it specify how long he must stay here.

The daily allowance for an inmate is Rs 100, raised from Rs 70 only a few months ago. This is all they get to meet all their daily expenses, including food. “This is insufficient,” says Baheetharan, “We are literally starving.” Inmates have to enlist the services of an attender to obtain raw food materials. “He takes money and brings things for us, but we don’t know the prices of these. Whatever he says, we can’t question.” What is provided to them is firewood, and they usually cook food in groups. “We have to raise voices for anything and everything,” says Baheetharan, who is under medication for depression for the past two years. “The destiny of an inmate is solely decided by the Q Branch Police. There are many who have been arrested again and again on trivial charges.”

Sreekumar has gathered several such stories as part of his research work. He cites the case of Chenturan, a Sri Lankan national who had registered as a refugee after reaching Tamil Nadu with his wife in April 2011. He was allotted space at a regular refugee camp in Sivaganga district of Tamil Nadu. On 19 July 2011, on grounds that remain undisclosed, an order of confinement was issued against him under Section 3(2)(e) of the Foreigners Act, and he was lodged in the special camp at Chengalpattu. After more than a year, on 4 August 2012, an order was put out for his shift to another such camp on allegations that he had ‘instigated inmates and created problems’. In protest against this transfer, he went on a fast for about 24 days, but all it did was get him arrested and thrown into the Puzhal central prison on 31 August 2012. He continued to resist the treatment meted out to him. After about four or five indefinite hunger strikes—for some of which he had to be hospitalised—he was moved back to a special camp on 31 October 2012. According to observers, his health had notably deteriorated. But there was some good news for him. After a week, on 7 November 2012, he was sent to a regular refugee camp. This was not the end of the story. He was forcefully repatriated to his country of origin, Sri Lanka, the land he had left in fear of his life.

Ila Nehru, a Sri Lankan refugee detained in 2012, also had to fight relentlessly for his release. Originally from Chavakachery, Sri Lanka, he came to India in 1990. Not in need of any government aid, he sought refuge in regular Tamil society, even using his resources for the education and health of poverty-stricken fellow refugees. This apparently brought him under the surveillance of the police. He had set up the Displaced Eezham Refugees Rehabilitation Organisation, which was making efforts to raise donation funds to support the college education of young refugees. On 17 July 2012, by an order of the government, he was picked up, taken away under heavy police escort, and put in a special camp at Poonamalle.

Despite their ill-treatment, the influx of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka did not abate until the end of its civil war a few years ago

An order to deport him to Sri Lanka was issued on 19 August 2013, but the Madras High Court stayed his deportation four days later, pending the disposal of his case. Nehru and 26 fellow inmates at the camp went on a hunger strike, demanding to be shifted to regular camps. As their fast-unto-death produced no result, over a dozen of them tried to commit suicide by consuming sleeping pills. No lives were lost. Medically, Nehru and the others made recoveries, but he was charged with attempted suicide and put behind the bars of a regular prison. It took Nehru a couple of his years to secure his release. Six months ago, he migrated to Switzerland.

During the course of his detention in the Trichy camp, Nehru had used his mobile camera to film the living conditions there. In the clips in Open’s possession, many inmates speak of how they were picked up and have languished in a camp that accords them less dignity than a jail does.

Detainee M Sasitharan of Jaffna, for example, says in Nehru’s video clip that he came to India in 2001, but could not find place to stay in Chennai. “The Q Branch arrested me in September 2003, accusing me of trafficking people to Australia. I had nothing to do with human trafficking and had never intended to migrate to that country. I had come to India in search of a peaceful life. I managed to get bail in this case, but only to get arrested again by the Q Branch, right in front of the prison itself.” He was nabbed for the violation of Indian visa rules.

Muhammed Sadiq, who is from Puttalam in Sri Lanka, has a similar tale. “Even after securing bail, as per the law, I have been put here in this camp for the last 16 months,” he says in Nehru’s video, “No chargesheet has been filed yet against me, nor have I been taken to court for any procedure. I have been sending letters to the authorities at regular intervals, but in vain. They promised to release us when we staged a hunger strike, but didn’t keep their word.” The wait for justice has been endless, the conditions terrible. “Only blood relatives are allowed to meet us here. Not everyone have them here in India. We cannot go back to Sri Lanka either, because we are treated as terrorists there,” says Sadiq, “We do not understand what kind of jail term this is. We do not have access to any government facilities. We cannot talk to lawyers. If we fall ill, we have to give an application in writing just to get medical help. Often it takes one or two days—if there is a shortage of policemen to escort us, we have to wait. The authorities threaten us whenever we raise our voice. They say all our protests are drama.”

As it turns out, this unlawful detention in special camps is not restricted to Sri Lankan citizens. There are a couple of Nigerians and three Bangladeshi nationals also in the special camp at Trichy. EIzu Chwuku Patwik, a 26-year-old citizen of Nigeria, had this to say over phone: “I came to India in 2014 for business. I fell ill and could not go back to Nigeria before the expiry of my visa. I was arrested for exceeding [the permitted length of] my stay in India.” He was also harassed, he adds, for what the police said was illegal possession of liquor. All he had on him, he says, was a litre of Heritage Red Wine and two smaller bottles of 8 PM whisky.

The court of Thirupur’s Chief Judicial Magistrate put Patwik in jail for10 months. The judgment, of which Open has a copy, also directs the authorities to deport him to Nigeria after that period. By the time he was sentenced, on 28 December 2015, he had already been behind bars for some time. But, released in April 2016, he was not deported but taken to a special camp.

The Q branch did not respond to Open’s queries on these cases. Nor did Tamil Nadu’s Director General of Police, whose office was sent a questionnaire on the camps and their detainees.

In a book titled An Eye to Indian Policing: Challenge and Response, the state’s former Director General of Police V Vaikunth refers to these special camps thus: ‘When dealing with non-nationals the police has not been given full powers. The Foreigners Act 3(2) does not grant the police the authority to lock them up and restrict their movements.’ Further, he writes, ‘I can vouch for the fact that not even the central intelligence agency has a way of determining who a refugee is and who a militant is.’

In a country that prides itself for having welcomed the homeless since time immemorial, this is a shameful state of affairs.