Struggles of (re)assimilation: The experiences of young Sri Lankan refugee returnees from India

Anoji Ekanayake and Kopalapillai Amirthalingam

Boats moored at Passaiyoor fishing village in Jaffna which is home to many Sri Lankan refugee returnees from India

This article is based on research supported by the Small Research Grant Scheme of the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

During Sri Lanka’s thirty-year civil war, tens of thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils sought refuge in other countries. As per the Global Statistics of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), by the end of 2011, there were 136,605 refugees from Sri Lanka residing in 65 countries. The majority of them (around 100,000) were in Tamil Nadu in Southern India.

Currently, there are approximately 100 camps for Sri Lankan refugees in India, and the vast majority of Sri Lankan refugees reside in them. Refugees in camps receive cash assistance, free shelter, healthcare and schooling. While their basic necessities are covered by the Government of India, they face numerous challenges in India such as social stigmatisation, difficulties in obtaining long-term work and official legal documents due to their refugee status. In addition, they do not have any potential of receiving Indian citizenship as India’s new Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) has excluded refugees from Sri Lanka currently residing in India an opportunity to seek Indian citizenship, making them vulnerable to being stateless. Due to these challenges faced in India, since the end of the war in 2009, some refugees who fled to India have begun to return to Sri Lanka. According to the Government of Sri Lanka, as of 31 December 2018, 7,818 persons belonging to 3,001 families who had migrated to India as refugees due to the conflict have returned to Sri Lanka voluntarily.

All returning refugees face challenges to varying degrees in the initial months after their return. These challenges range from land, housing and employment issues to culture shock when reintegrating into Sri Lankan society. However, compared to older returnees who left Sri Lanka as adults, those who left Sri Lanka as children or were born in India to Sri Lankan refugee parents struggle more to assimilate to life in Sri Lanka upon their return. While, in general, older returnees tend to reintegrate within a short period and are happy about their return, young returnees who mostly return at their parents’ behest tend to struggle to assimilate and question their return decision in the first few years post-return. This article, based on interviews with refugee returnees in Passaiyoor, Jaffna, conducted in October 2020, looks into some of the key challenges young refugee returnees face and how certain bureaucratic procedures in Sri Lanka have exacerbated their problems.

Challenges faced by young returnees

Unemployment and underemployment

One of the biggest challenges that most of these young returnees from India face is finding jobs that suit their qualifications and expectations. Some of them have been waiting for years to find suitable jobs upon their return to Sri Lanka. This is particularly true for returnees with degrees from Indian higher education institutes.

For instance, 30 year-old Thangaraja[1] who returned to Sri Lanka in 2016 is a Bachelor of Technology graduate from a college affiliated with the Anna University in Chennai. Before, coming to Sri Lanka at his mother’s behest, he worked at a multinational corporation in Chennai. However, at the time of our interview with him in October 2020, he was working as a fisherman and a painter in Jaffna as he has been unable to find a job that matches his qualifications and salary expectations upon his return to Sri Lanka.  He stated, “I studied hard for four years [to get the degree]. [Now], I work with those who have just Grade 8 qualifications.”

Siva, a 29-year-old Bachelor of Arts graduate who returned to Sri Lanka in 2017 also has a similar experience. He said, “after I obtained my degree in India, my mother said that I will be able to get a government job in Sri Lanka because I am a graduate. I came to Sri Lanka because of that. But, only after returning I realised that I prefer India. There aren’t any employment opportunities in Sri Lanka. I get paid only 15,000 at my current job. But, my house rent alone is 15,000”

One of the reasons for the long-term unemployment or underemployment of refugee returnees is that most of them look for work only in the Northern Province and are reluctant to move to the western province where the country’s capital is located. However, the Northern Province which was ravaged by the war for around thirty-years does not have many industries that create opportunities for young people like Thangaraja and Siva.  Moreover, the province’s main city of Jaffna, akin to many other cities in Sri Lanka does not have a vibrant private sector which can absorb the province’s tertiary educated youth.

The main reason which dissuades returnees from seeking jobs in the capital Colombo or in areas other than the Northern Province is their inability to speak Sinhala. While Tamils who do not speak Sinhala manage to work and live in Colombo and other Sinhala majority areas (albeit with difficulties), they manage to do so as they have networks of friends and family in those areas to support them. Moreover, over the years, some of them have acquired a working knowledge of the Sinhala language and have learned how to navigate in Sinhala majority areas. However, young Tamil returnees from India in general, do not have anyone in Colombo or other Sinhala majority areas to help them with language barriers if they were to move to those areas. Also, unlike Tamils who have lived in Sri Lanka all their lives, they do not have any experience navigating life in Sinhala majority areas in the country. Therefore, migrating to Colombo away from family tends to be frightening for most young returnees.

For instance, Siva, who has struggled to find an appropriate job in Jaffna since his return in 2017, said that he is not interested in migrating to Colombo as he does not speak Sinhala. The difficulties he experienced during his visit to Colombo to obtain his National Identity Card (NIC) has discouraged him from attempting to find work in the city. He said “When I went to Colombo to get the identity card, I spoke in English and [the officials there] said they don’t know English. [They expected me to speak in Sinhala.] I won’t be able to manage in Colombo”

Even in instances where returnees are open to migrating to the capital, they feel that bureaucratic structures of the country which tend to favour the majority hinder them. For instance, Thangaraja after failing to find a suitable job in Jaffna for years, applied for a job as a technical assistant at a government institution in Colombo. While he was shortlisted and called for an interview in Colombo, he did not get the job which he believes was due to his lack of Sinhala language skills.

 “I applied for a job as a technical assistant. In the advertisement, it didn’t say Sinhala is mandatory. I applied and got shortlisted. But, at the interview they asked ‘do you know Sinhala?” 

While Thangaraja might not have received the job as there were other candidates who are better qualified than him, as someone who has faced discriminatory barriers all his life, Thangaraja feels that his inability to speak Sinhala was the reason for not getting the job.

Discriminatory barriers to job market

Most young returnees with degrees we talked to aspire to obtain jobs in the government sector through the government’s graduate training programme aimed at unemployed youth. Even though refugee returnees with degrees who applied for this scheme received letters in early 2020 indicating that they will be offered jobs through this scheme, when the programme was implemented in late 2020, none of the refugee returnees were included. These returnees along with other graduates who have passed out from overseas universities were not given opportunities as the priority of this scheme was on unemployed youth who had graduated from Sri Lankan universities.

Refugee returnees question why they were overlooked in this scheme. For instance, Thiruthika, a 37-year-old returnee from India who holds a Bachelor of Commerce degree argues that the government should distinguish between refugee returnees and others with overseas qualifications as refugee returnees migrated to India for safety reasons and not for study purposes. However, despite the collective lobbying by refugee returnees, they have not been able to gain jobs in this scheme.

Bureaucratic barriers in obtaining crucial documents

Some of the Sri Lankan refugees In India were born in India to Sri Lankan parents. While they have birth certificates issued by the Sri Lankan High Commission in India and are Sri Lankan citizens, upon arrival in Sri Lanka they cannot obtain the NIC as easily as other returnees. While refugee returnees born in Sri Lanka receive their NICs within a few of months after submitting their applications, those who were born in India have to sometimes wait for more than a year to receive theirs as they have to obtain their citizenship certificate prior to applying for the NIC. The delay in obtaining the NIC makes it difficult for these returnees to open bank accounts in their name, get employed and sometimes even prevent them from travelling in Sri Lanka.

For instance, Thangaraja’s brothers who returned to Sri Lanka in 2019 had not received their NICs by the time of our interview in October 2020. Thangaraja says that his brothers do not travel more than a few kilometres away from their home in Jaffna due to increased surveillance by security forces all around the country following the Easter Attack in April 2019. While Thangaraja’s brothers have a valid reason for not having NICs, their fear of being questioned or arrested by security forces prevents them from finding work outside their village.  He says, “if the police [stops] you, you have to tell all the details and it is difficult.”

Lack of a sense belongingness

Apart from employment issues and bureaucratic barriers, another major challenge that some young returnees face is their lack of sense of belongingness in Sri Lanka. This particularly applies to those who were born in India and those who spent the majority of their childhood in India. Compared to their parents and older relatives who spent the exact amount of time in India as them, these young returnees take more time to get assimilated to the Sri Lankan society upon return. One of the reasons for the longer reintegration period is that while these returnees were in India they did not have much connection with their relatives in Sri Lanka. Interviewees said that while their parents and elderly relatives continued their relationships with those in Sri Lanka through phone calls and letters, these young refugees hardly had any opportunity to connect with their extended families in Sri Lanka.

Another key factor that makes reintegration difficult for young returnees is that the South Indian Tamil dialect they speak is different from the dialect spoken by Tamils in Sri Lanka. While the two dialects are interchangeable and do not create any communicational barriers, returnees say that they are made to feel inferior and sometimes are laughed at when they use the Indian Tamil dialect when conversing with those who had lived in Sri Lanka all their lives. This has made it difficult for some young returnees to make friends in Sri Lanka and hence they tend to only socialise with other returnees like themselves.

For instance, Krishani, a 28-year-old returnee who migrated to India at the age of eight years and was there for 19 years stated, “for my parents, our community [in Jaffna] is ok. For me, it is difficult to mingle with the people. My [dialect] is somewhat different. [People here] are not accepting our [Indian Tamil dialect]. Our slang is somewhat different. Most of the time I don’t talk. When I open my mouth, I can’t change the slang. Somewhat I try to change. That is the main challenge for me. In my workplace also our pronunciation is somewhat different.”

Remigration to India

The sense of loneliness and lack of belongingness coupled with difficulties in finding a suitable job have encouraged some young returnees to re-migrate to India. As they are no longer accepted as refugees in India after their legal return to Sri Lanka, some of them visit India on short-term visas for temporary jobs or reside with relatives in their former refugee camps. For instance, Siva, who returned to Sri Lanka in 2017, went back to India in 2018 on short term visa to work as a stunt actor and stayed in India until the end of 2019. On the other hand, Thiruthika, who returned to Sri Lanka in 2010 with her husband, went back to India in 2011 with him to stay with her parents at a refugee camp in Tamil Nadu. Since she was no longer eligible for refugee grants[2], Thiruthika worked as a teacher at the school for children in the camp. Her parents, who were still eligible for the refugee grants, supported Thiruthika and her husband with their expenses.

However, these short-term visits often prove to be unsustainable and tend to complicate reintegration in Sri Lanka. Those who returned to Sri Lanka through official means cannot legally stay in India beyond their visa period and hence have to return to Sri Lanka. At times, their continuous visits to India in search of their familiar environment tends to make reintegration in Sri Lanka harder.

Recommendations

Most of the problems that young Sri Lankan refugees face upon their return to Sri Lanka stem from bureaucratic issues inherent to Sri Lanka and a lack of a supportive structure to guide them in their initial months and years post-return.

The government should pay special attention to the challenges faced by these young returnees as their experiences, and the stories they share will be the basis for the return decision of other young Sri Lankan refugees in India. Even though the government’s current grant of LKR 10,000 for a returning refugee is a step in the right direction, far more needs to be done to help returnees reintegrate, especially young returnees who had lived most if not all their lives in India. These returnees faced discrimination in India in attaining regular employment due to their refugee status. Therefore, their foreign degrees should not be held against them when recruitments are made for government schemes aimed at graduates. After years of discrimination in the job market in India due to their refugee status, they should not be subjected to further discrimination upon their return to Sri Lanka.

While most young returnees we talked to revealed that they personally help new returnees in whatever ways they can, it could be more effective if support comes in a more organised manner. With the help of the UNHCR, the Sri Lankan government could create support groups at district level so that all young returnees have all the necessary information and the support they need. Introducing recent returnees to those who had returned before them will help new returnees to hear from people who have gone through the trials and tribulations that they are bound to face and how to overcome them. These support groups could also include members of local youth societies so that returnees can build up friendships with local youth. This will enable young returnees to feel that they are welcomed. Such support groups could also help new returnees build up their networks, which will help obtain jobs in the private sector and areas outside Jaffna and the Northern Province.

Footnotes


[1] Pseudonyms have been used to protect the identities of the interviewees 

[2] Once a refugee returns to Sri Lanka, s/he cannot return to India as a refugee and is not eligible to aid given to Sri Lankan refugees in India by the Indian government.

References

Performance Report 2018. (2019). Ministry of National Policies, Economic Affairs, Resettlement & Rehabilitation, Northern Province Development and Youth Affairs. https://www.parliament.lk/uploads/documents/paperspresented/performance-report-ministry-of-national-policies-economic-affairs-2018.pdf

Radhakrishnan, R. K. (2020, January 3). Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in India, the nowhere people. Frontline. https://frontline.thehindu.com/cover-story/article30328790.ece

UNHCR Eligibility Guidelines for Assessing the International Protection Needs of Asylum-Seekers from Sri Lanka (HCR/EG/LKA/12/04). (2012). United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Authors

Anoji Ekanayake is a research professional with research interests in labour migration, transnational communities, displacement and gender. She holds a Bachelor of Arts with First Class Honours from the University of Peradeniya and a Masters in Development Studies from the University of Colombo. Her work has appeared in various international outlets such as Migration and Development (Routledge). She is currently working at the Gender, Justice and Security Hub of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

K. Amirthalingam is a Professor in Economics attached to the Department of Economics, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka. He works both as a researcher and development consultant with a special interest in migration, displacement, public finance and Sri Lankan economy. He is a Co-Director and member of the Executive Group of the Migration & Displacement Stream of the Gender, Justice and Security Hub of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). His work has appeared in leading journals such as Journal of Refugee Studies, Disasters, Migration and Development, Sri Lanka Economic Journal and Colombo Business Journal

Publication Date: 15 April 2021

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