Taking refuge in Tamil Nadu

Place: TamilNadu | Courtesy: BBC
| Date: 20000531

By: Vir Singh in Tamil Nadu

Every morning, scores of women and men huddle near the highway outside the Mandapam transit camp for refugees in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

They wait for labour contractors to take them to construction sites, warehouses and coconut plantations, where they will gladly work for half the local wage.

That is because these Sri Lankan Tamils are the poorest of the poor.

Here, they may be safe from the bombs and bullets of the war between the Tamil Tigers and Sri Lankan forces, barely 100km away.

Within this little money. . . it is very hard Tamil politician Misa Marimuthu

But to survive as refugees, they must somehow secure extra income to supplement the meagre rations and cash support they get from the Indian Government.

Misa Marimuthu, a local member of Tamil Nadu's ruling DMK party, is aware of their plight.

But he doubts that his own party, or the national government in faraway Delhi, will provide more assistance.

"The government is giving weekly, one person, nearly 70 or 80 rupees," he says.

"Within this little money they cannot purchase any comfortable food also. It is very hard," Mr Marimuthu says.

Tough conditions

An estimated 70,000 Sri Lankan Tamils are housed in 129 refugee camps across Tamil Nadu.

Another 80,000 live with relatives or else live on their own - permitted under Indian laws so long as they register with local police.

They will gladly work for half the local wage A few of the 7,000 inmates at Mandapam Camp are lucky enough to get money from relatives living abroad.

Others manage to find jobs in the many refreshment stalls and privately run telephone booths outside the camp, or else set up their own businesses.

But most have to take whatever work they can get.

From the road outside the camp, it is hard to tell exactly what conditions are like inside.

A four-foot-high barbed wire fence, broken in some places, runs around the sprawling sandy compound.

The government official overseeing the camp is under strict orders not to talk to the media.

Closed to outsiders

"I can't even tell you my name," he says.

Journalists are not allowed in.

That ban is strictly enforced by the local police who hover outside, some in plain clothes.

There is strong support for the Tigers There are few signs of the abject poverty found in many parts of India.

There are no beggars.

But life here is a lot harder than what these refugees were used to back home.

You would hardly know this by talking to the refugees, though.

They are generally reluctant to complain to outsiders, including local Tamils.

They have provided each and every thing Teacher Murugan on the Tamil Tigers Instead, their attention is focused on the war in nearby Sri Lanka, where Tamil Tigers are battling government forces in the Jaffna peninsula.

Murugan, a young Indian Tamil teacher who tutors several children from the camp, says he thinks there is strong support here for the Tamil Tigers.

He has heard the refugees talk about the period when the Tigers controlled Jaffna.

"They say they have provided each and every thing. They have made some separate schools, they have posted teachers, and they have opened some ration shops," he says.

"Even communication centres, separate news channels also┬┐They have given all these primary needs to these people."

The current situation in Sri Lanka, then, appears to have raised hopes among the refugees that a Tiger victory will bring peace and a chance to go home.

Search BBC News Online Advanced search options BBC ONE TV NEWS WORLD NEWS SUMMARY BBC NEWS 24 BULLETIN PROGRAMMES GUIDE

Click below for the background to Sri Lanka's long war

Key stories: An unwinnable war? Jaffna: Key to the North Arming the Tigers India's Sri Lankan scars Sri Lanka's ethnic divide Timeline of conflict

Profiles: Who are the Tigers? President Kumaratunga Leader of the Tigers TALKING POINT Email highlights

See also:

25 May 00 | South Asia Tamil diaspora surfs for news Internet links:

Government of Sri Lanka Government of Tamil Nadu Eelam web

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Other top South Asia stories:

Bangladesh row over floods Senior Hindu priest murdered Flower hits impressive century Calling India is sound business Cleric defends India's Muslims Sri Lanka rebel attack 'repulsed' Sri Lanka journalists condemn killing Sex scandal at Indian school Links to top South Asia stories are at the foot of the page.