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Sri Lankan refugees living in the camps of Tamil Nadu in India have been able to take control of their uncertain future through education. The story of their journey inspires many refugee communities who wait in uncertainty for a durable solution to their plight.

The 1983 violence and subsequent uncertainties forced a silent exodus of Sri Lankan Tamils to seek asylum in India as well as other countries in Asia, Europe, America and Australia. Following the riots, tens of thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils arrived in Tamil Nadu. In the first wave from July 1983 to December 1987, 134,053 Sri Lankan Tamils arrived as refugees; a further 122,078 arrived in the second wave of migration from August 1989 to April 1991. From July 1996 to August 2003, 22,418 Tamils fled seeking asylum, while 24,527 Sri Lankan Tamils came to India in a fourth wave that lasted from January 2006 to January 2010.[1] The refugees were then accommodated in government run refugee camps across Tamil Nadu in Southern India.

According to the Commissionerate of Rehabilitation[2], the arriving refugees were held in quarantine at the Mandapam Transit Camp in the Ramanathapuram district by Police and Intelligence department officials. After ensuring that they were clean from involvement with any militant groups or movements, they were permitted to stay in any refugee camp in Tamil Nadu. In the instance refugees were found to be associated with proscribed military groups, the officials would accommodate them in the special camps[3].

While the majority of the refugees went back to Sri Lanka at regular intervals, there are presently 19,451 families comprising of 63,351 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees living in 107 government administered refugee camps. A further 37,868 refugees are living outside the camps in Tamil Nadu.[4] Sri Lankan Tamils accommodated in the camps are supported with a slew of welfare measures ranging from cash dole to social security schemes that are also available for local citizens.[5]

Understanding that education was the only resource that would beat the challenges encountered in the refugee life, Sri Lankan refugees led by the Organisation for Elankai Refugees Rehabilitation (OfERR[6]), an organisation run by Sri Lankan Tamil refugees for refugees, lobbied with the central and state governments of India and obtained special allowances for the education of refugee students, since the majority of them had lost their academic certificates due to continued displacement.

“Having lost everything, we requested the government to provide space for our children to study alongside Indian children. To our surprise, the Tamil Nadu government agreed to admit all the children into their schools, even without academic certificates. Nowhere in the world has this happened,” S.C. Chandrahasan, the Founder of OfERR said.

Refugees in Tamil Nadu gave education great importance, believing that through education, they would be able to better rebuild and contribute to a peaceful and prosperous society upon returning to Sri Lanka. For this reason, nearly one third of Sri Lanka’s refugee population are students.[7] In order to ensure the students felt empowered, various programmes were organised among the refugees to support education; including nursery education and care, evening coaching classes, higher education courses, computer literacy classes, motivation classes and college student forums. OfERR’s empowerment programmes not only helped the refugees to be gainfully occupied but also helped overcome psychological trauma resulting from prolonged residence in camps and years of uncertainty regarding prospects for return to Sri Lanka.[8]

Despite several challenges including myriad financial and social issues arising from living in a camp, more than 3,526 graduates and diploma holders have been produced among the Sri Lankan Tamil refugee community living in Tamil Nadu. They include qualified doctors, engineers, IT Professionals, banking and commerce employees and social workers.[9] The Tamil Nadu government’s support in terms of allowing admissions into higher education institutions on merit basis was certainly a major contributor to this achievement. From 2014-2015 and 2015-2016, 85% and 87% of refugee students respectively were admitted into higher educational institutions.[10]

Apart from this, OfERR supported by the Ecumenical Scholarship Program (ESP) from Germany is committed to help students of vulnerable families[11] achieve their dreams of higher education. OfERR assesses the level of assistance required by the student and provides higher education scholarships, a major part of which is provided by ESP.[12]

Sri Lankans prioritise the education of their children. This was continued even among the refugee population in Tamil Nadu. In the event a child from a refugee family was unable to attend school, the neighbourhood families  would intervene and take responsibility to ensure the children received the education they deserved. Hence, vulnerable families also gained the confidence and courage to educate their children up until graduation.

More than three decades have passed and now, basic education is ensured among every child in the refugee camps, apart from those with disabilities, who remain marginalised.[13] It is notable that graduates play a vital role as mentors to promote not only the importance of school and higher education, but also ensuring quality education among the refugee students. This is evident from the fact that Sri Lankan Tamil refugee students have been achieving 92% and 89% results in the State 10th grade and 12th grade[14] examinations respectively, in the academic year 2015-2016.[15]

Education has been a powerful tool allowing the Sri Lankan refugee to transform from a hapless to a resourceful position. The refugees have been transformed into laudable human resources and this was evident when Sri Lankan Tamils engaged in rescuing Tsunami victims in Tamil Nadu during Tsunami 2004 and extended relief and rehabilitation services to them.[16] Sri Lankan Tamil refugees led by OfERR served among the marginalised communities in the coastal villages of Kanyakumari, Nagapattinam and Cuddalore and provided them with education, capacity building, women empowerment, livelihood, medical, nutrition and counseling support to bring about socio-economic changes in their lives.

The refugee student community have organised in district and regional level forums and motivated their communities through social activities. There are presently 23 students’ district forums functioning with the 1036 college student members.[17] The students’ forums assist the upcoming generation of the student community through mentoring, special coaching, training and monetary support. They act as social agents in ensuring quality education, admitting refugees in colleges, monitoring academic dropouts, sensitising the refugee community on social and global issues, organising programs/events such as environmental cleaning, undertaking special coaching, and conducting awareness programmes.

Education is not only important to the refugees for employment and improving quality of life, but also to allow the community to identify long-term solutions for their protracted situation.

“Graduates, being the most highly educated group in our community, have the responsibility of constantly updating refugees with the current situation of Sri Lanka and preparing the community for making voluntary, considered and informed decisions about their future,” Ajith Kumar of the Paramathi camp in Namakkal district explained.

Given the limited scope of employment opportunities in Tamil Nadu, refugee youths often don’t wait for suitable employment opportunities, but engage in unskilled, semi-skilled or ideally skilled work to promote livelihood development in Tamil Nadu. But their ultimate goal is to utilise their higher education back in their homeland.

Education has brought significant socio-economic changes to the Sri Lankan Tamil refugee population living in Tamil Nadu. In comparison with the United Nations Millennium Development Goals[18], the development among the refugees living in Tamil Nadu is extremely commendable – there is no poverty and hunger; women are empowered and gender equality is maintained; almost 100% of refugee students have access to fundamental education; there are no epidemics, while infant and maternal mortality is greatly controlled in the camps; and refugees are conscious of the consequences of global warming and climatic change and involve themselves as messengers to sustain environmental sustainability. The support of the Tamil Nadu and Indian government in general has been a major contributor towards achieving sustainable development among the refugees in Tamil Nadu.

The Sri Lankan Tamil refugees should be considered as role models, for the fact that they have not deviated from their objective of developing themselves as valuable contributors to society . Despite feeling insecure about their future, education has been used almost as a sail against the harsh winds encountered in their lives. Empowerment through education has transformed them from dependability to sustainability and self-reliance. They see a light at the end of the tunnel, bringing an end to their life in exile.

The author has himself lived as a refugee in India for 25 years. He is a Programme Associate at OfERR Ceylon and has completed his Masters in Social Work (MSW) and then, M.Phil in Social Work at Loyola College, Chennai. 

If you enjoyed this article, you might find “Danger in distorted education: Sri Lanka’s history curriculum” and “How free is free education? The impact of Tuition on exam marks” enlightening. 

[1] Camp Population Abstract, Commissionerate of Rehabilitation and Welfare of Non-Resident Tamils, (Updated upto 01.11.2016), Chennai, http://www.rehab.tn.nic.in/camps.htm, accessed on 27.01.2017.

[2] Commissionerate of Rehabilitation is the authority of Government of Tamil Nadu that governs the Sri Lankan refugees in the camps in Tamil Nadu.

[3] Special camps are located at Puzhal in Thiruvallur district and Cheyyar in Tiruvannamalai district in Tamil Nadu. They are like prisons where refugee inmates are to live under close surveillance and the inmates are not permitted to go outside.

[4] Camp Population Abstract, Commissionerate of Rehabilitation and Welfare of Non-Resident Tamils, (Updated upto 01.11.2016), Chennai, http://www.rehab.tn.nic.in/camps.htm, accessed on 27.01.2017.

[5] Kolappan.B, “Slew of measures for Sri Lankan refugees in camps”, the Hindu, 25th March 2012.

[6] OfERR (Organization for Elankai Refugees Rehabilitation) was founded in 1984 with the objective of rendering relief and rehabilitation service for the Sri Lankan Tamils seeking asylum in Tamil Nadu. OfERR is presently working for all the refugees in the camps and delivering humanitarian service including community organization, education, women empowerment, health and nutrition, human resource development, counseling, livelihood, documentation, etc.

[7] http://www.oferr.org/content.php?id=234

[8] Saha K.C, Learning from Empowerment of Sri Lankan refugees in India, Forced Migration Review, Vol.20, Page. 31 & 32.

[9] Edwin Daniel, “Evaluation Report of OfERR’s Higher Education Scholarship Program: (2007-08 to 2011-2012) in collaboration with The Ecumenical Scholarships Program (ESP) – Diakonisches Werk EKD (DWEKD)”, 22nd December 2012, Chennai. & Higher Education Report by OfERR 2015-2016.

[10] Higher Education Report by OfERR 2015-2016.

[11] Vulnerable Families – Single parent families, families of four or more children, families of chronic patients, physically challenged, widows and elderly parents.

[12] Florence E. McCarthy, Margaret Heather Vickers, Refugee and Immigrant Students: Achieving Equity in Education, Information Age Publishing Inc, United States of America, 2012

[13] Higher Education Report by OfERR 2015-2016.

[14] 10th grade is equivalent to G.C.E (O/L) and 12th grade is equivalent to G.C.E (A/L) in Sri Lanka.

[15] Higher Education Report by OfERR 2015-2016.

[16] Prem Shanker V, Lankan refugees pay back their debt to India, Aljazeera, 16th October 2013, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2013/10/lankan-refugees-pay-back-their-debt-india-2013102 115342 869893.html

[17] Higher Education Report by OfERR 2015-2016.

[18] UN Millennium Development Goals for 2015, http://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/mdgover view.html, downloaded on 28th November 2014