Foreign Policy Watch: India-Sri Lanka

[op-ed snap] Return to the homeland


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Nothing much

Mains level : Refugees from Sri Lanka


A criticism of the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019 questions why Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka will not be given citizenship under the new law.

Influx of refugees

  • Refugees for long – Tamil Nadu began witnessing an influx of refugees from August 1983 following Black July in Sri Lanka. Indian government maintained that these refugees should go back on their own.
  • Voluntary repatriation – India has been following the principle of nonrefoulement and favouring voluntary repatriation.
  • Indira Gandhi – In 1983, Indira Gandhi asserted that the country “cannot and will not take millions of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka”. This is keeping in mind the problems posed by the migration of refugees from Bangladesh to India in the early 1970s.

Sri Lankan refugees

  • India continued to receive thousands of refugees from Sri Lanka over the years. At one point, Tamil Nadu had 2 lakh refugees.
  • Between 1983 and 2013, around 3.04 lakh persons came to the State.

Nature of repatriation

  • Forcible repatriation – In the early 1990s, after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, a controversy erupted over reports of sections of refugees being sent back “forcibly”.
  • UNHCR validation – The Indian government agreed to allow representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to screen refugees to ascertain the voluntary nature of the repatriation.
  • UNHCR it is also involved in counselling the refugees, helping them obtain necessary documents, paying for their international travel and providing reintegration grants and post-return support.
  • Indian government – the Indian government has taken steps to facilitate voluntary repatriation. Visa fee is waived and overstay penalty is granted to non-camp refugees on a case-to-case basis. Camp refugees are given this benefit as a matter of routine.
  • Tamil refugees importance in going back – the civil war had an adverse demographic impact on the Tamils of Sri Lanka. The numerical strength of MPs from Tamil-speaking areas has gone down over the years as Sri Lanka follows proportional representation. If the refugees go back, this will help Tamils get more representatives in the Sri Lankan Parliament.

The Indo-Sri Lankan Accord

  • Reason for non-inclusion – The 1987 Indo-Sri Lankan Accord talks of repatriation.
  • The 2011 report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission set up by Mahinda Rajapaksa regime called for voluntary repatriation. 
  • It also stressed the need for creating a conducive environment for the refugees to return to and for initiating a formal bilateral consultation process.

Way ahead

  • Rajapaksas are back in power and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is receptive to the idea of refugees returning to Sri Lanka.
  • Negotiate – India should resume negotiations with Sri Lanka to give a push to the process of voluntary repatriation. 
  • Ensure safety – Sri Lanka should create conditions that will ensure the safety and security of the refugees returning to their homeland.
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments