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The Protracted Sri Lankan Refugee Situation in India: Challenges and Possible Solutions Essay


There is a lot of talk about refugees and what to do with them until they actually show up and upset the social harmony that existed before they arrived.

There are a lot of people, government agencies perhaps and international organizations that speak well of the need to help refugees, but at the heart of the matter is a social problem that is difficult to address (Betts, This is compounded by the fact that refugees cannot travel far away from home – the usually cross their national borders and in a few weeks time totally transform the social aspects of the area that they are forced to flee into – and driven not by desire to immigrate but forced to flee because of serious problems that made them decide it is better to starve and feel vulnerable as an alien in a foreign land rather than stay home.

The refugee problem becomes more unbearable when it already is a protracted situation such as the kind of situation one can see with the Sri Lankan refugees in India. There is a need to move fast to resolve the crisis for the sake of the refugees and the residents of the affected area.

Always Expect Them

As long as migration is possible and as long as humans have the ability to travel far distances refugees will always be a part of the modern world’s many social dilemmas. According to Loescher and his team of experts writing for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees or UNHCR, “Wars, political upheavals, ethnic discrimination, religious strife and a wide range of other human rights abuses lead people to become refugees” (Loescher, Betts, & Milner, 2008).

This is an unfortunate thing to say but they spoke the truth – as long humans never learn to live together in peace, then those who have no power to defend themselves – the poor people caught in the crossfire between armies and invading armies – have no choice but to leave their homes, livelihood and everything that they own to simply survive.

Although it is understandable why they have to cross national borders in order to seek protection outside their homeland, what happens after they are declared refugees is the beginning of a process that makes them vulnerable not only to the environment but also to reaction of the people who usually resent the fact that they have intruded into their domain and made to feel in the most explicit terms that they not welcome and therefore they have to leave again (Toktas, 2006).

But where will they go? It is not their choice to become foreigners in a land where they do not have the means to earn a living and they expect to get no support from the government and from the people who usually view them with contempt.

Due to the challenge faced by refugees as well as their host country, the United Nations decided to create a formal institutional structure that was created to deal with the problems inherent with this phenomenon (Loescher, Betts, & Milner, 2008).

Although the UNHCR was only created in 1950 it has become the most important ally of all refugees all over the world. It has two major obligations: 1) they represent the states’ interests such as sharing the costs of granting asylum and coordinating policies in aid of the refugees and 2) to facilitate the flow of funds and by the way they are dependent upon donor state funding (Loescher, Betts, & Milner, 2008).

These two aspects of the UNHCR’s work adds complication to their already difficult task. Their commitment to helping refugees is tested to the limit when they deal with a protracted refugee situation such as the circumstances surrounding the Sri Lankans seeking refuge in India.

Protracted Refugee Situation

Most of people who sought refuge in the Southern part of India are actually Tamils. They are part of a minority group residing in Sri Lanka.

For many of them their great ordeal started when Velupillai Prabhakaran, born to a middle-class family on the Jaffna Peninsula decided to rectify the injustices done to the Tamil minorities and spearheaded a guerilla movement with the goal of creating an independent homeland for his people (Thottam, 2009).

His fledgling army was able to bring Sri Lanka to civil war and in the early part of the 21st century Prabhakaran enjoyed tremendous success that allowed him and his de facto government to control vast swaths of territories but just at the same time the government intensified its campaign to destroy the Tamil Tigers as Prabhakaran’s army came to be known (Thottam, 2009).

In the ensuing drive against insurgency, Sri Lankans, particularly the Tamils were caught in the crossfire and many believed that there was no way that they can survive for long and their only hope was to leave, create as much distance as they could from their homeland and then attempt to start anew.

In 2006 the fighting escalated to new heights and it was also at that time when many Tamils decided to pay for the treacherous trip over water so that they can reach Tamil Nadu, located in India’s southeastern state (Spiegel Online, 2006). In that year alone there were at least 16,000 Tamils that fled the country and braved the treacherous crossing towards the shores of southeast India (Spiegel Online, 2006). This number continued to escalate until the last year of the conflict.

In 2009 the Sri Lankan government felt it was time to crush the Tamil Tigers once and for all and in a desperate move to stay alive it was alleged that Prabhakaran used thousands of Tamil civilians as human shields (Thomttam, 2009). As a result the Tamils were more than even convinced that there was no hope for them if they continue to stay put in Sri Lanka and so on that year the number of refugees crossing towards India increased dramatically.

In one estimate the number of refugees that sought refuge in India reached as high as 75,000 and they lived in 115 closely monitored camps (Chandrasekaran, 2010). If one will examine closely the timelines and the chronology of events it is easy to understand why the problem was labeled as a protracted refugee situation in India.

Experts in this field were able to pinpoint the reason why this protracted refugee situation is something that does not sit well with many governments and citizens of host countries and they remarked: “States in both global North and South have increasingly come to see the mass arrival and prolonged presence of refugees as a security concern and a burden” (Loescher, Betts, Milner, 2008). This is very much evident when it comes to the protracted refugee situation between Sri Lankans seeking protection in India.

This is not without precedent because for a very long time the refugees are seen as a burden on the economy and has a detrimental effect on social cohesion and national identity (Loescher, Betts, Milner, 2008). It is easy to comprehend the ambivalent attitude of the Indian government because in the short history of UNHCR there is no state that did not struggle with the presence of refugees in their borders.

The Solution is the Problem

The UNHCR is in an unenviable position every time they have to deal with mass migration of people seeking asylum especially when it comes to a long drawn situation such as the one with Sri Lanka and India.

This is because the UNHCR will have to convince the Indian government and its people that they are the only hope for these Sri Lankan refugees while at the same time it is not oblivious to the fact that this particular state is not exactly grateful for the opportunity.

The problem with dealing with refugees is rooted in human nature. It is simply too difficult to do something without a perceived personal gain.

People work to get wages and people are expected to perform a certain duty because they know that a reward is forthcoming but how can one motivate a group of people, particularly a bureaucracy if they cannot foresee any profit from such an endeavor and at the same time burdened by the realization that more are coming and there is no clear guarantee that they will attempt to go back with the same zeal as they did when they crossed the border.

It is not only the Indian government that had a hard time trying to discover a well-balanced approach that could please everyone involved, the refugees as well as the local residents living near the refugee camps. There are so many things to consider, not only the resources needed to sustain a mass number of people that are practically beggars without the means and the skills to find work suited for that particular region.

Even those who drafted the international law that supposedly should regulate and increase assistance to refugees find it impossible to simply advocate an open arms policy welcoming everyone and feeding everyone that succeed in crossing international borders.

In fact those who were tasked to ratify an international law to govern refugees tried their best to limit the beneficiary class (Hathaway, 2005). The drafters of the said international law created an airtight rule to limit the number of people that will be considered as true refugees as opposed to opportunists and the following is an example of those restrictions:

They excluded, for example, persons who have yet to leave their own country, who cannot link their predicament to civil or political status, who already benefit from surrogate national or international protection, or how are found not to deserve protection. Beyond these explicit structures, however, refugees are conceived as a generic class, all members of which are equally worthy of protection (Hathaway, 2005).

The language of the said international law for refugees speaks volumes regarding the conflicting attitudes of those who are tasked to govern the refugees and the states that are forced to take them in. Aside from the ambivalent attitude towards refugees many also suffer from discrimination.

This is something that should not surprise many, especially those who are aware of the implications that arise from a mass migration of asylum seekers but it is still interesting to note that the kind of treatment received from host countries differ and can be linked to the nationality of the refugees.

According to one report the Saudi Arabian government recognized Iraqis that were displaced as a result of the Gulf War but refused to acknowledge thousands of others who flocked into Iraq due to the same reasons (Hathaway, 2005).

In addition, “India has allowed Tibetan refugees full access to employment, but limited – in some cases severely – the opportunities to earn a livelihood for refugees from Sri Lanka…” (Hathaway, 2005). In a nutshell one can easily ascertain the kind of life that the Tamil people are experiencing in India. Nevertheless, many are still grateful that they are alive and far from the carnage that threatened to destroy their nation.

India has to take action because it is still the responsibility of the state to help those seeking asylum as mandated by international law (UNHCR, 2010). According to one source the Indian government provided the refugees with at least 400 Indian Rupees per head of household; this translated to roughly USD$9 and a little less for every other member of the family (Spiegel, 2006).

Obviously this is not enough to cover all the basic things that a family will need especially those who cannot find employment in a foreign land. The ideal scenario is one illustrated by the image of the Statue of Liberty and the famous words chiseled underneath that invited all those who are weak and weary for they will find shelter in the shores of America. But that was a long time ago and even the U.S. drastically altered its immigration policies and is now perceived to be less accommodating when it comes to asylum seekers.

As mentioned the ideal scenario would be for the state to have unlimited resources that can assist refugees like a nurse trying to revive a wounded and shell-shocked soldier and bring him back on his feet.

But the reality is that the state that are supposed to be safe havens are also located near war zones and most of the time they also exhibit the same problems such as the extreme gap between the rich and the poor, meager employment opportunities and political instability. It is therefore easy to understand the reluctance of the state to take what was supposed to be for their citizens and give it instead to foreigners.

The sentiment of one refugee echoed the predicament that the Indian government finds itself in when it comes to dealing with the Tamil refugees and said that even if the aid given were meager they are better off than many Indians outside the camp and added: “We always have to keep that in mind and encourage people to work” (Spiegel, 2006). For many years the Indian government had to deal with this dilemma – to help or not to help.

It is now clear why the assertion was made that the solution to the refugee question is also the problem. The UNHCR is an important ally in terms of helping internally displaced people but the UN empowered institution can only do too much, the heavy lifting required to tolerate and to shelter these refugees rest solely in the shoulders of the state and in this case India has to contend with this problem for more than a decade.

Homeward Bound

In 2009 the Tamil Tigers were soundly defeated; an organization without a head can no longer stand. The death of their beloved leader was a deathblow to the resistance and therefore the Civil War that ravaged the nation is now considered over. The next logical step is for the Tamil refugees to start packing their bags and head home. But this is easier said than done.

In the past the problem was shelter, protection and food. Today the crisis has evolved into something else and it is the need to transition from providing refuge to the Tamil refugees to assisting them to have the necessary physical, emotional, and psychological capability to begin the long way home.

Many are understandably scarred not only from the wounds that they received from war but also the psychological wounds that they had to endure from the time that they were forced to flee, to crossing the treacherous waters to reach India and to be emotionally battered by the fact that they are in a foreign land where they are not welcome.

Many have abandoned hope of ever returning to their homeland and many have made the necessary emotional and psychological adjustments needed to thrive in a new environment (Milner, 2010). Now, all of that has to be reprogrammed to be able to achieve another Herculean task and it is to deal with the sorrow, pain, frustration and the need to rise up once again to rebuild their lives not as a refugee but a citizen of a war torn country that indirectly forced them out during the Civil War.

According to the UNHCR there are at least 300,000 internally displaced people just after the war ended (UNHCR, 2010). During the last days of the conflict many refugees thought that the situation will even escalate to more violence and therefore decided to flee in greater numbers as before.

This has great implications for the Tamil refugees in India. First, they are not the only group of refugees that has to be repatriated back to Sri Lanka. Second, the UNHCR has to deal with other conflict areas all over the globe. Third, the Sri Lankan government has to adjust its mindset from one that is focused in eradicating insurgency to one that is geared towards nation building.

Possible Solutions

The situation can be remedied by looking at various models that can be used to develop a strategy to deal with Tamil refugees. Obviously there can be no hard and fast rules dealing with mass migration in this magnitude. There are different factors to consider. As mentioned already the refugees already made conscious and unconscious adjustments that perhaps there is no way that they can come home.

It is easy for others to judge them based on what they know but it is way different to be living in refugee camps and not knowing what was actually going on in their homeland and even in the international community. For example leaders and other concerned groups are intensely discussing their plight but the Tamil refugees themselves have very limited access to information. It is possible that outsiders know more about the situation in Sri Lanka than they do.

Going back to the discussion of models that can be used to restore Tamil refugees back to Sri Lanka, the best example is to look for countries that resemble similar problems and yet able to overcome them. For instance the distinctive feature of the Sri Lankan crisis is that there is a minority group contending with the majority and this conflict intensified to a point where there had to be a Civil War. Thus, it is not enough to simply bring them back home but also to prepare a government that can handle ethnic problems in the long term.

In this regard one of the possible models that the Sri Lankan government and even the United Nations can utilize to help build Sri Lanka is the Malaysian model. According to one expert in this field Malaysia and Sri Lanka hsared much in common when it comes to their initial economic, political and social conditions especially when it comes to multi-ethnic societies (Abeyratne, 2008).

Whereas, Malaysia was able to quickly rebuild and shows no sign in abating their recovery the same cannot be said of Sri Lanka and the reason given is this: Sri Lanka failed to achieve a development process in a sustainable manner and at the same time the government has allowed the state to stagnate (Aberyatne, 2008). Therefore, the international community with the coordinating capability of the United Nations will have to work together to assist Sri Lanka.

Using the Malaysian model the UN need not work from scratch, there is a template that can be used and it has proven to work even in a nation that used to experience riots and other ethnic related violence.

The Sri Lankan government must also step up to the plate and must not bury its head in the sand pointing fingers and blaming others for reducing the economic ability of the country to almost nothing. It is time to rebuild and everyone has to pitch in and work. The government must intensify its programs specially targeting areas that are in need of greater focus.

The country needs to increase its trade with neighboring countries and to encourage entrepreneurship as a viable means to reduce the unemployment rate. If these things are not addressed the refugees will simply more from one place to the next but this time around they will no longer be considered refugees because they are back in their homeland, nevertheless they behave the same way dependent on the benevolence of others.


The Civil War had practically ended in 2009 there are still refugees that has yet to be repatriated back to Sri Lanka. This has redefined what it meant by the protracted Sri Lankan refugees in India. The Indian government has to deal with the long drawn refugee problem within its borders but now that the war is over India is still feeling the impact of the Tamil refugees.

It has been discovered that helping the refugees is not an easy task to do considering the reluctance of the host nation to offer assistance. Although international law mandates that it is the responsibility of India to help the Tamil refugees this directive is easier said than done. India cannot be considered as an affluent country by Western standards and therefore it is not easy to divert resources meant to support its own citizens and give it to the refugees.

The only good thing that happened so far is that it is now possible for the Tamil refugees to come home. But even that sliver of good news is tainted with the fact that they cannot simply pack their bags and leave. It is time for the UNHCR to improve its capability to address the situation. It is also time to consider possible models to solve the problem. A good example is how Malaysia was able to rebuild their country as it dealt successfully with deep-seated ethnic conflicts.


Betts, A. (2010). “Towards a “Soft Law” Framework for the Protection of Vulnerable Irregular Immigrants.” International Journal of Refugee Law. 22(2): 209-236. Chandrasekaran, A. (2010). “.” Livemint.com & The Wall Street Journal. Web.

Hathaway, J. (2005). The Rights of Refugees Under International Law. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Loescher, G., A. Betts, J. Milner. (2008). UNHCR: The Politics and Practice of Refugee Protection into the 21st Century. New York: Routledge.

Milner, J. (2010). “.” Web.

Spiegel Online. (2006). “.” Web.

Thottam, J. (2009). “.” Time Magazine Archives. Web.

Toktas, S. (2006). “Transit and Receiving Countries” Alternatives: Turkish Journal of International Relations. 5(12): 20-50. Web.

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IvyPanda. "The Protracted Sri Lankan Refugee Situation in India: Challenges and Possible Solutions." September 17, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-protracted-sri-lankan-refugee-situation-in-india-challenges-and-possible-solutions/.


IvyPanda. 2019. "The Protracted Sri Lankan Refugee Situation in India: Challenges and Possible Solutions." September 17, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-protracted-sri-lankan-refugee-situation-in-india-challenges-and-possible-solutions/.


IvyPanda. (2019) 'The Protracted Sri Lankan Refugee Situation in India: Challenges and Possible Solutions'. 17 September.

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