The Refugees Who Don’t Want to Go Back Home

Why you should care

Because it’s easier to spread chaos than to guarantee safety.

It’s been six years since Sri Lanka’s long civil war came to an end. Now this island-state of 20 million seems to have entered a new era of peace and prosperity: The economy is growing at 6 percent, reconciliation is under way and the new government is saying it will welcome any refugees who want to return. There’s only one little hiccup: Many refugees don’t want to go back.

There are about 100,000 Sri Lankan refugees (mostly Tamil) living in camps in the south of India.

Though you might think they’d jump at the chance of returning to their homeland (especially if the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is paying for the plane ticket), it’s not so uncomplicated. “There is a lot of anxiety over whether to leave or to stay,” says Miriam George, an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Social Work who conducts research on the issue. “Having to choose is causing trauma between generations.”

Many of the older generation, those who fled in the ’80s and early ’90s, want to return home, eager to reconnect with the friends and family members they left behind. Yet for others, “returning is risking their lives,” says Aran Mylvaganam, spokesman for the Tamil Refugee Council. The country’s decades-long civil conflict ended after 100,000 people died, with the Tamil Tigers’ defeat and both sides accusing each other of crimes against humanity. Refugees from the region of Jaffna, which saw some of the heaviest fighting between government forces and the Tamil Tigers, are likely to be greeted with suspicion upon their return. A recent report by the International Truth and Justice Project found 20 cases of returnees in 2015 who were victims of torture and rape at the hands of Sri Lankan security forces in what the authors described as a “predatory climate against Tamils.” (The Sri Lankan government did not reply to request for comment.)

The younger generation of Tamil refugees isn’t exactly queuing at the airport either, but not out of fear of retaliation. For the thousands who were born in camps, India is their home country, where their roots, friends and studies are. Many are already in their 20s, and some have even attended college in India. And while career prospects for refugees are limited (India does not grant Tamils nationality even if they are born there), the prospect of starting from zero in a foreign land sounds even less enticing.

Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan government continues to campaign for Tamil return. Between 2002 and 2015, more than 12,000 refugees were repatriated voluntarily to Sri Lanka; according to UNHCR India, another 41 have returned since the start of 2016. Those who choose to stay face an uncertain future since India is not likely to allow them citizenship anytime soon. (The Indian government did not reply to request for comment.). Yet Tamil refugees “are full of resilience and hope for the future,” says George. Which, after 30 years in limbo, is a victory in itself.

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