Sri Lanka
Sri Lankan refugee flow to India nearing 18,000-mark
Mar 9, 2007 - 9:56:00 AM

New Delhi, March 9 - The number of Sri Lankan Tamils fleeing to India is picking up again after a relative lull and is set to cross the 18,000-mark amid fears of renewed fighting in the island nation.

An NGO that tracks the refugee movement says the total number of refugees since January 2006 had risen to 17,822 following the arrival by sea Thursday of 13 adults and 11 children at Rameswaram, a costal district in Tamil Nadu. 'People - are getting the feeling that there is going to be a war. That is why they are again leaving in large numbers,' said S.C. Chandrahasan, a Sri Lankan Tamil who heads the Organization for Eelam Refugee Rehabilitation.

'People feel caught up between both sides,' Chandrahasan told IANS in a telephonic interview from Chennai, referring to the Sri Lankan military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam -.

After a peak of 5,749 arrivals in Tamil Nadu in August last year, the numbers began to slide. The total for September was 3,749 and it fell steeply to 735 in October. It decreased further to 314 in November and a record monthly low of 266 in December 2006. The numbers rose again to 394 in January 2007 and 912 in February.

'During the latter part of last year we thought things were improving and perhaps settling down,' Chandrahasan said. 'But with heavy fighting breaking out in parts of - east, many feel there is going to be a war. If it continues like this, there could be a huge influx.'

The latest group of 24 who sailed to Tamil Nadu Thursday included six families, including some from Delft, an island off Jaffna.

According to Chandrahasan, most Tamils coming to India now were from Vavuniya or Jaffna in the island's north. Last year most originated from Trincomalee in the east or Mannar in the northeast.

He quoted the refugees as saying that they were quitting the government-held parts of Vavuniya due to 'white vans', which are known to be linked to the state and abduct young Tamils suspected of being with the LTTE.

These vehicles apparently appear on the streets of Vavuniya town and its environs at night, without any registration number plates and have no difficulty getting past security checkpoints.

'Once the white van asks for a Tamil man by name, almost everyone in the area with similar names flee in fear,' said Chandrahasan, who has been based in India for over two decades. 'It is a state of anarchy in Vavuniya.'

He added that worried parents, desperate to save their children from being recruited by the LTTE or detained by the Sri Lankan military, were marrying them off so as to send them to India.

'Hurried marriages are taking place -,' he said. 'The LTTE won't let go young men from its area if they are unmarried. In any case leaving the LTTE area is not very easy. The military also suspects male bachelors.'

So many of the recent arrivals are males in the age group of 15 to 30, brought by their mainly poor families after selling off almost whatever they have to pay for the risky boat rides from Sri Lanka to Tamil Nadu.

Tamil Nadu is separated from Sri Lanka by a narrow strip of sea and is home to thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils, many of whom live in the 130 designated refugee camps.

'Those fleeing Sri Lanka think that if at all a war is going to break out, the only way to save one is to go to India,' Chandrahasan explained.

Asked if the crackdown in Tamil Nadu on arms smugglers linked to the LTTE had made life difficult for the refugees, he said: 'There is a clear distinction between victims of the military and those engaged in other activities. A victim is seen with kindness. Problem arises if people are indulging in other activities.'

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