Visiting a Sri Lankan refugee camp

The focus of this post is a visit I made to a refugee camp for Sri Lankan Tamils in Tamil Nadu, South India in April 2009.

This original version of this post is on the CuriousWorks website.

I was in India for the Rasa Unmasked tour and wished to cross over to Sri Lanka for two weeks before coming home, to conduct the first stages of research for the play. While doing this, I wanted to help however I could with the devastating situation unfolding at the time. Being a young Tamil male, born in Sri Lanka, I was consequently advised by a great deal of people not to go – that it would be too dangerous.

As I was thinking about what to do if I did not go, I was lucky enough to be introduced to the Director of an organisation called OfERR. OfeRR is the Organisation for Eelam Rehabilitation Refugees. It is a secular, politically neutral NGO that services the 100,000+ Sri Lankan refugees in Tamil Nadu, placed in over 100 camps. Their activities cover everything from advocacy to engineering, architecture, agriculture, education and media. You can read about the volunteer work I ended up doing for OfERR elsewhere on this website: but before I did this work, I visited one of those refugee camps and wanted to share some thoughts.

Anyone familiar with Australian refugee camps, or as we like to call them, detention centres, will probably be imagining barbed wire, heavy security and unhappy people – but only worse, and on a larger scale – for the Sri Lankan refugee camps in India. Here in Australia most of us feel geographically isolated from the rest of the world. Often this is stated as a gripe, like, “That flight to the US costs so bloody much, I bet people in Europe would be able to just pop over for the weekend.”  But on the flip side, many Australians also feel lucky that they are geographically isolated from many of the world’s problems.  There is the notion that we haven’t seen, or had to deal with, what people living in other continents have had to deal with.

Of course if you’re familiar with CuriousWorks or this website you know that this is simply not true: take a look at the problems that have riven several parts of the Indigenous community in Australia over the last 220 years and it’s clear we have our own dark underbelly. Nevertheless, there was something of this feeling of being a naive Australian that I couldn’t shake off as I travelled to the camp, 3 hours south and west of Chennai. I expected to see something visually horrific upon arriving and had this dark sense of foreboding in my belly.

Against these expectations an entirely different scenario greeted me. As I walked through the camp, smiling children were everywhere, gathering in pockets amongst the many alleyways that carved out a maze in the camp. I visited several small, dignified dwellings and was served a lovely lunch by refugees who worked for OfERR, living in the camps. I found out that Sri Lankan refugees were allowed to work by the Indian government and that schools were set up in each of the camps for the children to learn. OfERR had made significant, quite amazing improvements to the camps in terms of architecture, advocacy, education and more. You can watch a video about some of this work in the video at the bottom of this post.

The day I was there the OfERR staff were bringing a new computer to the school. It was their first computer and they would be having a computer workshop in the school holidays. Before the workshop, we were introduced to the kids and played some theatre games with them. Then the workshop started. 4 computer screens were attached to the one computer through a device that enabled its CPU to be shared. The kids gathered around the screens and proceeded to learn about technology and global warming.

By the afternoon, I had a strong sense of the community that had come together in this camp. OfERR’s philosophy was that Sri Lankan refugees were people who would one day go back to help rebuild their country: and while in exile from it, they deserved to be educated and have opportunities to develop their skills so that they could do just that upon their return. This was definitely happening in this camp.

But as the afternoon wore on and passed into a very dark night the underlying sadness of the camp crept out. If not for a few solar-powered lights put by OfERR in the camp, it would have been in total darkness, dappled only by the moonlight. These camps are built wherever there is spare property: this one was located right next to a cemetery pyre. As I talked to different people from the camp with the pyre structure looming behind us, it became clear that the camp was still a kind of prison. I met young men the same age as I, who had arrived in the camp at the same time as I had left Sri Lanka for Australia, and had still not left. Everyone was worried about the situation in Sri Lanka; the family or friends they had there and could not contact, due to the war; wondering how long it would be before they could go back.

Even though people could work and get an education in the camps, this was not of the same standard as other Indians. They could only get diplomas and were competing against applicants with PHD’s for the professional jobs. Those who had software engineering degrees were whitewashing for a living.

So, even as OfERR was doing a variety of things to improve the standard of life and give these refugees some dignity in the camps, it was hard to escape the underlying situation. I had migrated to a country that had given me the freedom to belong to it. I considered myself an Australian with Sri Lankan heritage. These people had not had that chance. In a sense, they were not fully in India, they were clearly not in Sri Lanka. They were a people in exile. This is  why the advocacy work that OfERR does is so important; rehabilitation of the refugees must be a twin, synergistic goal with the lobbying for a peaceful resolution to the historical struggles of Sri Lanka. More than ever, I hope that the recent events in Sri Lanka progress in such a manner as to give these people an opportunity to go home.

Coming back from the camp, I felt even more ashamed of Australia’s own refugee policy. It seemed not only needlessly expensive but churlish that we processed people on Nauru. Were we trying to act like it wasn’t really happening? Why does our government continue to focus on some strange ‘boat people’ peril, when 96% of refugees come into this country on a plane? It seemed unwise to resist educating and developing the skills of those who end up in our detention centres. If they ended up remaining in Australia, they would invest these skills, coupled with their unique life experience, in Australian society. If they didn’t, they would invest themselves in rebuilding their homeland, helping it become a place that didn’t produce more refugees in the future.

Most certainly, the Indian government, for all it’s complications and other negative aspects, didn’t charge people after they had left the camps for their time there.

I’d like to make it clear that the current group of refugees made homeless by recent violence in Sri Lanka – some 200,000 – are not going through a similar experience to the people in these camps. The scarce news from that area is somewhat devastating. Like you, I will continue to absorb whatever frugal pieces of information float out to us from the North East and hope that enough people in enough places will unashamedly call for a genuinely peaceful compromise that rebuilds the many scars of this struggle.


<small>Find more photos like this on All Around You</small>

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