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Sri Lankan refugees in India were stopped from trying to board boat to Australia

The Tamil Nadu government runs 109 special camps, housing around 60,000 refugees

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Sri Lankan Refugees. Image source: Wikipedia
  • Smugglers charge 100,000 rupees ($1502) for a one-way journey to Australia, according to investigating officials
  • Over 100,000 Sri Lankans are estimated to have sought refuge in southern India, particularly Tamil Nadu
  • Most refugees have refused to go back to Sri Lanka saying the government there has not come up with a clear plan for their reintegration 

CHENNAI, India- Refugee activists have called on the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu to ease restrictions on Sri Lankan refugees living in guarded camps after police intercepted a group who had escaped and were attempting to migrate to Australia.

Campaigners said the case showed how desperate Sri Lankan refugees were to flee India where they have been confined to closed camps for years and have no right to work.

“They are desperate people looking for a dignified life,” said P Pugalenthi, a lawyer who represents refugees in Chennai.

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“They are practically imprisoned in camps with no freedom of movement. They need permission to step out of the camps. They cannot buy property, start a business or even legally have access to a mobile phone.”

Map of Sri Lanka. Image source: Wikipedia
Tamils distribution in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. Map of Sri Lanka. Image source: Wikipedia

Over 100,000 Sri Lankans are estimated to have sought refuge in southern India, particularly Tamil Nadu, during the conflict between separatist rebels and the Sri Lankan army which lasted a quarter of a century and ended in 2009.

The Tamil Nadu government runs 109 special camps, housing around 60,000 refugees. They receive an allowance, food and education. Some have been in the camps for two decades and many were born there.

The refugees say if the Indian authorities won’t grant them citizenship they should at least be given the right of free movement in the country.

On Thursday June 2, officials intercepted a truck in Tiruvallur near Chennai where they found 33 refugees missing from four government-run camps. The refugees, including six women and six children, were planning to take a boat to Australia, police said.

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“The journey they were going to embark on is very dangerous. They are just being duped by agents, who have been arrested and will be booked under both trafficking laws and the national security act,” coastal security group head Sylendra Babu told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Police said there had been four or five similar attempts by refugees to board boats to Australia in the last three years.

There have been reports of several suicides in the camps this year as well as protests over alleged harassment by authorities.

“They don’t see a future in India with all the existing restrictions,” said V Suresh of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties rights organization, a human rights organization.

“Most of them are sitting in camps with no work permits or means to upgrade their skills. Living here has robbed them of their self-respect and they want to escape.”

Smugglers charge 100,000 rupees ($1502) for a one-way journey to Australia, according to investigating officials.

India has hosted many refugees from neighboring countries over the years but it has no law to define refugees and the status of the Sri Lankan refugees remains ambiguous.

The U.N. refugee agency, which has a limited mandate in India, does not have access to the camps in Tamil Nadu.

Most refugees have refused to go back to Sri Lanka saying the government there has not come up with a clear plan for their reintegration. Many lost everything in the war and cannot see how they would restart their lives. (Reuters)

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  • Real_Peace

    Thanks Newsgram for this revelation!.

    Let me see if I understand this- According to the Lawyer:
    “They are practically imprisoned in camps with no freedom of movement. They need permission to step out of the camps. They cannot buy property, start a business or even legally have access to a mobile phone.”

    So, why not let them leave if they want to, at their own risk?
    Sounds like: Damned if they do Damned if they don’t!!

  • Real_Peace
  • Aparna Gupta

    India should have a proper law regarding refugees to ease the problem. Moreover, authorities should be polite with refugees instead of harassing them.

Next Story

The Errant Son: Mir Murtaza And Al-Zulfiqar

Would the Bhutto charm, have worked on India? And had it been so, would the map of the Indian sub-continent today, have resembled the idea of a free market zone in South Asia, with porous borders?

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Mir Murtaza Bhutto with Shahnawaz Bhutto
Mir Murtaza Bhutto with Shahnawaz Bhutto
Tania Bhattacharya
Tania Bhattacharya

By: Tania Bhattacharya

India-Pakistan relations have hit a record low following the dastardly Pulwama Attack on a CRPF convoy in Indian administered Kashmir, on the 14th of February this year. Curiously, the Pakistan PM Imran Khan, made a statement a few days ago, endorsing the Indian PM Modi, and suggesting, that in case there was a re-election of the latter, the Kashmir issue may be finally resolved. This scenario is significant, given that both Imran and Modi, are perceived hardliners in their respective nations. As some South Asian policy watchers have noted, it is hawks like the two aforementioned heads of state, and not peaceniks, who are more likely to take large risks over bilateral issues involving the two neighbours, since if any of them is required to acquiesce, they cannot be labelled as anti-nationals. Peaceniks, their good intentions aside, are looked upon with suspicion in their countries, which accuse them of selling out.

 

These are the heady days of jingoist patriotism in South Asia, where Right Wing organizations seem to be faring much better than the other political alternatives; but there was a time not very long ago, when Southern Asia was in a sweet spot between Dictatorship and Democracy, where conducive factors facilitated the spectre of Left-Wing radicalism, in both India and Pakistan. Between the imprisonment of Pakistan’s democratically elected PM Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and the mysterious plane crash that killed President Zia ul Haq in 1988, a shadowy entity by the name of Al-Zulfiqar had emerged out of the pale, and rocked the Zia dictatorship, with its nuisance value. What were the origins of Al Zulfiqar, and who, was its chief executive officer?

The PIA Hijack drama
The PIA Hijack drama

We must retrace our steps to the early 1970s, when Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was the Pakistan president. His eldest son, and second-born, Mir Murtaza, would build a lavish tent on the sprawling lawns of 70 Clifton, the Bhutto residence at Karachi. Inside the private sanctuary he had made for himself, the young lad would read the influential works of prominent Marxist revolutionaries like Lenin, Mao, and Che Guevara. The walls of his tent would be adorned with posters of world-famous figures, who had adopted Marxist techniques and applied them to their personal agendas. Murtaza had become deeply involved with the guerrilla warfare ethos of Socialist insurgents and quickly became a role model for his younger male sibling, Shahnawaz, junior to him by four years.

 

Sensing that the wayward, and obstinate nature of the older Bhutto was getting him into trouble with his high school officials and law enforcement, Zulfiqar had insisted, that Murtaza abandon his tent, and his Leftist reactionary literature, to concentrate on his school syllabus, so that the straight and the narrow could produce results for the latter. As soon as it became possible, and after consulting his wife Nusrat Bhutto, the President had packed off his enfant terrible to study in the United States, and then to England, where he hoped, that a new environment would change him. It was here, that Murtaza shone. A thorough academic, he researched upon and produced a dissertation, concerning the consequences of India’s nuclear program, on Pakistan. He developed the reputation of being a cad, and somewhat of a lady’s man as well, during his student years in London, where he was a regular sighting at nightclubs, with one or the other pretty girl, on his arm.

 

His father, had made the issue of the ‘Muslim Bomb’ an international one, arguing, that since the Christian, Hindu, Jewish, and Marxist political spheres had their own, ultimate weapon of mass destruction, it was only fair that the Islamic world follow suit. Israel though not openly belligerent with the bomb, was suspected of being in possession of the technology to construct one, in 1966 itself. Moreover, it had refused to sign the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty). Pakistan, under his leadership, he had sworn, would ‘gift’ the Muslim world with its first nuclear weapon. The president’s (and later, Prime Minister’s) son, would broach the topic on an academic level, and make its knowledge, widespread.

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto with his third wife Husna Sheikh
Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto with his third wife Husna Sheikh.

Murtaza was yet abroad, when his father, by the time, the democratically elected Prime Minister of his country, was toppled in mid-1977, in a military coup, headed by General Zia ul Haq, who until the event, had been Zulfiqar’s handpicked Chief of the Pakistan Armed Forces; and a man, that the confident, and arrogant premier, termed his ‘monkey general’. In a letter, handwritten to her brother, Benazir had advised him to travel to the United States, to meet with American leadership, that were friendly with the Pakistan Peoples Party, to plead for assistance in toppling the dictatorship of Zia. Interestingly, she had told him to steer clear of a top Bhutto aide, Ghulam Mustafa Khar. This is testified by Lt. General Khalid Mahmud Arif in his book Working With Zia. Khar, an uncle of PPP ex-Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar (2008 – 2013), had been a confidante of Prime Minister Bhutto, who he faithfully plied to the home of Bhutto’s first, secret mistress, and then, legally married third wife, Husna Sheikh, on a daily basis.

 

From the United States, Mir Murtaza had decided that it was not judicious to return to a strife-ridden homeland, which was experiencing its umpteenth military rule. Instead, he had flown to Syria and then Libya, to garner support from  Hafez  al-Assad and Muammar Gaddafi respectively. The Assads and Gaddafi were supportive of the Bhuttos. Zia to them, was an American puppet that had been installed as a means to an end, that too, through an undemocratic and unpopular regime change. It was in Syria occupied Lebanon, that Murtaza had begun building up a guerrilla outfit, which he named, the PLA (Pakistan Liberation Army). Members from the PPP back in Pakistan, were herded off to the Middle East, for rigorous guerrilla training, that was imparted by the Leftist PFLP (Popular Front For The Liberation Of Palestine). When Mir Murtaza deemed that the time was ripe for ambushing Zia’s men in positions of power; the trained militia of PLA flew to Afghanistan, where they continued further arms training, awaiting an opportune moment, to cross into their homeland, using the mountainous, and lawless tribal routes of northern Pakistan, which flanked the Durand Line.

 

While in Kabul, Murtaza Bhutto decided to rename his outfit Al-Zulfiqar Organization, or AZO. Shahnawaz, the younger son of the jailed premier, joined his older brother and was imparted training in guerrilla warfare, and violent Marxist insurrection. When not wielding guns in army fatigues, the young volunteers and the Bhutto brothers, would watch Bollywood flicks to kill time.

 

Initially, all Shahnawaz wished to do, was to open a tourist agency in Pakistan, and live quietly with the Afghan object of his affections. But the restless circumstances that engulfed the young man, forced him to join Al-Zulfiqar, all the more so, as it had his older brother at its helm; a man he had much admired from the days of his youth.

 

One of the first acts of the AZO, was to try to blow up Zia-ul-Haq’s plane with a missile, from an Islamabad rooftop. It did not produce the desired result. Next, was the hijack of a PIA (Pakistan International Airlines) flight. It was flown to Kabul, where the hijackers stated that the plane and its passengers would only be released if ninety-one political prisoners from the PPP, were set free from incarceration in Pakistan. Zia’s response initially, was a “No”. But once it became eminent, that there were no international mediators to take on the case on behalf of Pakistan; especially once Assad and Gaddafi explained the dilemma to General Zia, the latter was forced to rethink his stand. By then, AZO had reduced the demand from ninety-one prisoners, to some fifty-four of them. The Pakistan general was forced to comply with Murtaza’s bargain, as it released the PPP detainees from various gaols in the country, who were then swapped for the PIA plane and its passengers.

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto with Indira Gandhi and Benazir
Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto with Indira Gandhi and Benazir.

The mastermind of the hijack, was a seamlessly trained Salamullah Tipu, who was seen waving his gun in the air triumphantly from the door of the airplane, after throwing down the bloodied and dead corpse, of one Major Tariq Rahim on the tarmac. Rahim was a close aide of the Zia administration. While Tipu took the blame upon himself, and the PPP back in Karachi, led by Benazir and her mother Nusrat, denied any knowledge or existence of the AZO, Mir Murtaza Bhutto continued to avoid Pakistani authorities, was never caught on camera during the hijack episode, and was declared a wanted criminal by the Pak judiciary, in absentia.

 

In his