A family fleeing from fighting in the Tamil rebel-controlled region of Vanni, Sri Lanka, in 2008. The Jesuit Refugee Service is assisting tens of thousands of such refugees now living in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. CNS file photo

IMAGINE a household budget of less than $30 a month. For some of the 70,000 refugees in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, this has been a reality for years.

The head of a refugee family in Tamil Nadu typically receives 400 Indian rupees ($10.80) a month from the authorities, said Fr Alexis Premkumar, former director of Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Tamil Nadu.

Other adults and teens – that is, refugees above 12 years old – get 280 rupees a month, while children below 12 are allotted 180 rupees a month, he said. A refugee family of four, with young children, might receive around $28 per month.

A child’s education could cost many times that, about 8,000 rupees per semester, noted the Jesuit priest, who is also known as Prem.

Jesuit Refugee Service, an international organisation that includes JRS Singapore, serves about 500,000 of the world’s 43.7 million forcibly displaced people. This description that includes refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), who may be forced to move from one part of their country to another because of war or natural disasters.
In Tamil Nadu, JRS helps refugees in the 114 refugee camps there, which house around 70,000 people, said Fr Prem, 45, who visited Singapore recently.

These refugees are mostly ethnic Tamils who fled their homes during the 25-year civil war in neighbouring Sri Lanka.

The suffering of war victims war lingers on, years after the war ends. In the case of Sri Lanka, the government’s war against the rebel Tamil Tigers may have ended in May 2009, but many refugees – who often have ambiguous legal status as stateless persons – have been in refugee camps in Tamil Nadu for more than 10 years.
– Fr Alexis Premkumar

Fr Prem said “most of the refugees, around 50,000 people, came in 1990”, the year when renewed fighting erupted in what is called the second phase of the civil war.

The 114 refugee camps are run by government and police personnel in Tamil Nadu. Refugees are provided with basics such as subsidies for rice, shelter and electricity. However, “it’s insufficient”, said Fr Prem, who gave a talk about his work to members of JRS Singapore on July 2.

“The camps are very very small in terms of the size of the houses, [which can be about] 10 feet by 10 feet (3.05 m). You can hear quarrels or music from next door, there’s no privacy,” said Fr Prem, adding that camp residents have to queue for water.

Refugees’ movements are restricted and good jobs are scarce. “Government jobs are not available and private companies [sometimes] suspect the refugees are from the LTTE”, short for Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, as the rebels were formally called.

Other companies may not be keen to hire refugees as they have to be back in camp by 6 pm, he said. The refugees tend to do menial jobs such as painting houses or serving as drivers. “They’re not allowed to go out of the state.”

Those who previously trained in computer studies in college would be unable to work in Bangalore, India’s “Silicon Valley”, in neighbouring Karnataka state, said Fr Prem, who recently left his post in JRS Tamil Nadu after six years there. He was scheduled to take up his next position as project director in JRS Afghanistan at the end of July.

“In spite of their long stay in the camps, in cramped housing, people have a lot of hope in life,” said Fr Prem. “They want their children to get educated. In the camps, there are more than 1,000 people doing tertiary level education. This is a higher figure than the local population.”

JRS helps these refugees through advocacy, as well as providing emergency medical aid and education, including helping with scholarships. “We want them to be independent,” said Fr Prem, explaining how independence is encouraged by JRS paying part, and not all of the fees.

Another crucial way is through accompaniment, said Fr Prem.

This means “we participate in their joys, sorrows, celebrations, in marriage, death, baptism, festivals … Their sufferings are eased. They feel more comfortable. In a way, they are consoled”.

For more information on refugees, visit www.jrssingapore.org

By Venessa Lee