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Monday, 6 January, 2003, 16:02 GMT
Tamil refugees unclear about return
Women selling sabzi
Refugees have earned extra money in local markets

Refugees who fled conflict in Sri Lanka for the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu remain unclear about their future.

The uncertainty comes despite the Norway-brokered peace talks between the Sri Lankan Government and the Tamil Tiger rebels.

I would now like to go back to Sri Lanka - not to my home in the north but to the capital

Mani Lingham
refugee
There are more than 65,000 Sri Lankan refugees in 105 different camps in Tamil Nadu eagerly awaiting the outcome of the talks with the hope of returning to their homeland.

Some of them have been living in the state for more than two decades.

Raised hopes

Unlike the economic migrants who have sought asylum in affluent Western countries, these refugees are poor migrants from the northern parts of the embattled island.

Men at bus stop
Tamil refugees will often work for low wages
The peace talks have raised their hopes, though not many have yet opted to return.

State government officials are in the process of assessing the number of those who are willing to go back voluntarily.

So far, about 80 families have returned, the majority of them from the largest camp at Mandapam in the southern fishing town of Rameswaram.

Natesalingam, a refugee, says only the uneducated refugees have opted to return but others would prefer to wait.

Hopes

He told the BBC even those in the four refugee camps within Sri Lanka are hesitant to return to their homes in view of the fragile nature of peace talks.

"Even the few thousands who returned in 1993 have come back," he said.

In the past, hopes of peace have risen several times only to be shattered.

This time around, unless they are sure that peace is at hand, they do not want to return.

Though the refugees here miss their home, they are relatively comfortable.

The severe restrictions on their movement imposed after the assassination of the former Indian prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, have been relaxed.

Refugee children can now get into educational institutions.

They are also allowed to work outside and given subsidised rations along with an allowance.

Ruined homes

These children feel it is not yet the right time to return to Sri Lanka.

Mrs Mani Lingam's daughter is an engineering graduate from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology and her son is a doctor.

Tamil boy bathing and girls collecting water at the well in a refugee camp
Facilities in some of the camps are basic
She has been living in a rented apartment for the past 10 years in Madras.

"I would now like to go back to Sri Lanka", she told the BBC, "not to my home in the north but to the capital, Colombo."

Her home in Jaffna, like many other houses, is in ruins and once peace is restored, she might one day think of going there.

But her children have already migrated to the West.

The difference about these peace talks is that people are less sceptical about them - the refugees are in no hurry to return.


Peace efforts

Background

BBC SINHALA SERVICE

BBC TAMIL SERVICE

TALKING POINT
See also:

01 Jan 03 | South Asia
30 Dec 02 | South Asia
05 Dec 02 | South Asia
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