Sri Lanka has raised surveillance along its northern coast, following reports of some Sri Lankan refugees in India attempting to return by boats following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, authorities in Tamil Nadu denied any large-scale attempts by refugees to leave the country illegally.
“We have alerted the Navy, coastal police, grama sevakas [local administrators]and fisher folk to be alert,” P.S.M. Charles, Governor of the Northern Province, told The Hindu on July 2. “We have received information that some of the refugees are trying to leave India because of the coronavirus situation there. They might just hop on to fishing boats and enter Sri Lanka illegally,” she said.
The Sri Lankan authorities’ apprehension seems to have risen after a father-daughter duo, who were residents of the Pooluvapatti Sri Lankan Refugees’ Camp in Coimbatore, arrived in Sri Lanka from Tamil Nadu by boat early in June. Sri Lankan police took them into custody on arrival and also arrested six other Sri Lankans who “helped them” enter the island.
The Hindu had last month reported that following this incident, Central and State intelligence units in India began probing the illegal return of the duo. Nearly one lakh Sri Lankan refugees live in Tamil Nadu, many of whom are keen on returning to their former homes, while aware of the many challenges that await them, including the lack of opportunities and livelihood options in the war-battered economy. With the spike in COVID-19 cases in Tamil Nadu, some may be desperately trying to leave, Sri Lankan authorities anticipate.
Nonetheless, in Colombo, the issue came up when Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa addressed editors of Tamil newspapers on July 1. According to a report published in popular Tamil newspaper Virakesari on July 2, Mr. Rajapaksa told the editors: “The number of those entering illegally is increasing. In this regard, myself and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa have spoken with the Indian government.”
However, a senior officer of the Coastal Security Group, Tamil Nadu, when contacted, said: “We are keeping a close watch on the situation. But the tendency to go back by illegal means is no longer there for these refugees. They can get proper certificates from government authorities and go back, which is what they are doing now since there is no problem in Sri Lanka any more.”
The officer said claims of people panicking due to COVID-19 and fleeing illegally were not true as the refugees were in separate areas and were anyway maintaining physical distancing and novel coronovirus cases were largely not prevalent in these areas.