Among the walking dead of India's refugee camps

Trevor Grant, who recently visited refugee camps in India and spoke with the family of a Tamil asylum-seeker originally from Sri Lanka, Leo Seemanpillai, who self-immolated in Australia in June last year.

Dusk is descending upon the Abdullapuram refugee camp, 120 kilometres outside Chennai, India.

Most of the 1500 Tamil refugees in this open -air prison are already back in their wretched little huts, careful to meet the 6pm curfew and avoid the daily intimidation and harassment of the security police. Dim lights flicker from open windows, revealing wives and mothers preparing meals of rice and watery soup on portable burners in the corner of tiny rooms that serve as kitchen, bedroom and lounge for as many as ten people. There is no such thing as a bathroom, and the only toilet, shared by scores of neighbours, is up to 200 metres away. The joyous laughter of children at play, chasing each other across stinking garbage piles, conceals the heartbreak and misery that resides permanently here, alongside the rats, the disease, the slavery, the murder, the rape and sexual assault and the ever-present Q-branch.

Seemanpillai sits quietly at home, a sparsely-furnished, concrete shoe-box where plastic sheets covering the holes in the corrugated iron roof barely hold the line against the heavy rain which has been pouring most of the day and turning many of the camps into reddish-brown swamps. He eagerly awaits our arrival, his grey moustache twitching nervously and his moist eyes flickering constantly to hold back the tears.

'Strength and resilience'

He’s a proud man who prefers not to cry in front of others but he soon gives in to his welling emotion. When I walk through the door and greet him, the dam bursts. He defies custom and hugs me tightly. He whispers in my ear; something in Tamil that I don’t understand.  He points to a photograph on the wall of his deceased son, Leo, a refugee who died in Geelong, Australia last June after setting himself alight because he feared being sent back to the torture chambers in Sri Lanka from which he had fled.

What I do understand, instantly, is that Leo’s father and mother, Elizabeth, who joins us later, are people of substance, of immense strength and resilience; people determined not to submit to the tragedies that have visited them and their sons for most of their lives.  They want us to know they are eternally grateful to the many people who helped Leo while he was living in Australia, and especially to those advocates who, after his death, let the world know that he was a decent, hard-working young man of faith who wanted nothing more than a chance at life.

They hold no anger towards the former Australian Minister for Immigration, Scott Morrison, whose constant public statements that he was determined to send back all Tamil refugees scared Leo so much that friends said it drove him to suicide.  They are puzzled, rather than outraged, by Morrison’s actions. Seemanpillai can’t understand why a fellow-Christian would deny grieving parents a visa to come to Australia to bury their son, as Morrison infamously did. He asked me if Morrison knew his son had donated his organs to save the lives of at least four Australians. I felt ashamed to say the Minister probably didn’t know or care.

Seemanpillai and Elizabeth have shed too many tears through their 25 years in this squalid camp in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. It all began as the bombs rained down on their Sri Lankan village and this hard-working fisherman was forced to flee the long-running civil war with his wife and four little sons, Alexander, Leo, Ezekeil and Maricilin, leaving behind their home and all their worldly goods.  That night, in 1990, he shoe-horned them into a corner of a small speed boat and then lay across them, bullets flying overhead, as the boat was chased by a Sri Lankan naval patrol with orders to kill rather than allow Tamil civilians to seek safety 30 kilometres away in India.

Somehow they got through the night but, while they had escaped death on this occasion, the daily struggle to survive was about to begin all over again once they were condemned to life as refugees in India. Without the chance of citizenship, of work rights, of access to decent education, of anything beyond a pitiful hand-to-mouth existence in disease-ridden slums, they soon became the living dead. And today, a quarter of a century later, along with an estimated 100,000 Tamils in 120 camps in south India, they remain so, little more than prisoners of the state secreted away under close scrutiny for the term of their natural lives, their only crime being a desire to save their lives and those of their children.

'Appalling conditions'

I visited several houses in camps on the outskirts of Chennai and in Vellore.  They are all much the same; tiny one-room shacks housing up to 10 people, mostly in appalling conditions. Most of the people I met had either lived in these camps for between 20-25 years or were born there. They receive a pittance from government that just manages to keep starvation at bay. There are few proper medical facilities and few toilets and bathing facilities. In some camps people were forced to relieve themselves in bushes. Women, particularly, were targets for passing males when they did this.  There have been cases of elderly women refusing to eat  because they don’t want to have to go out to defecate. Access to drinking water is often severely limited. In some camps men and women had to cycle for several kilometres to fetch water. Many people were without electricity for as long as 16 years, although it is more readily available now.

It’s hard to imagine there could be more oppressive places than these but residents say the so-called 'special camps' are far worse. These have been used for decades to house anyone suspected of links to the former Tamil Tigers or anyone the intelligence police, known as Q-branch, looks upon negatively. They are secret, dirty, hell-holes where people die regularly, unbeknown to the outside world.  “Many of us fear being sent to a special camp. There is often that threat from some police,” one man told me. It’s little wonder special camps have been described as worse than jails by India’s Peoples Union For Civil Liberties.

These are the places that former Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said last year provided perfectly-decent refuge for Tamil asylum-seekers from Sri Lanka, many of whom he said were engaging in “economic migration” by trying to come to Australia.  Last July, as he was unsuccessfully trying to send 157 Sri Lankan Tamils back to India, Morrison went so far as to compare the camps to conditions one might find in New Zealand. “If we can’t take people back to India what is next? New Zealand? I would be surprised if anyone was seriously suggesting people were persecuted in India by the Indian government,” he said.


While describing any such claim as “absurd and offensive,” Morrison clearly overlooked the legal meaning of persecution as defined under the Refugee Convention, to which Australia is a signatory but India is not. In a Federal Court case in Australia in 1989, Justice McHugh said: “Persecution for a (Refugee) Convention reason may take an infinite variety of forms from death or torture to the deprivation of opportunities to compete on equal terms with other members of the relevant society…. It depends on whether (the conduct) discriminates against a person because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a social group.” 

Fear of intimidation was palpable among the refugees during my time in the camps. One man ushered me into his hut and closed the door quickly. He explained that there were informers throughout the camp, ready to report people who have unannounced visitors. Two weeks earlier, security police, who work with Q-branch, had interrogated him after a local refugee advocate had been seen visiting him. Refugees told me that a non-government charity that had been supplying women and children with clothing was suddenly banned a few weeks ago. The government restricts NGOs because they tend to expose the truth of these camps to the outside world. One frail, tiny 69-year-old Tamil woman who had missed the curfew by 30 minutes waved a clenched fist as she uttered an expletive or two about the guards who might try to challenge her over being late back. She had been there for 20 years, having fled Sri Lanka after her two sons were killed in the war, and was clearly accustomed to standing her ground.

A 40-year-old woman in another camp said no-one was allowed out of the camp after 8pm. “Nobody can come from outside to see us unless they get permission from the authorities,” she said. “If anybody comes we get questioned and these officials take away anything these people might have brought us. Because of this fear, we tell relatives and friends not to come at all. We were persecuted in Sri Lanka, now in Tamil Nadu. There is no-one to speak out for us, no-one cares about what’s happening to us. We are trapped and invisible.”

The travesty of life-long incarceration of innocents remains a dirty little secret in India, one which the mainstream media is happy to keep. Many middle-class Indians to whom I spoke knew nothing of the camps. Others accept the government propaganda that the refugees are being treated well without asking why the same government refuses open access to the camps.

Women forcibly taken

The truth the Indian government is so keen to hide, with the assistance of a compliant media and complicit foreign governments, such as Australia, includes the most shocking crimes, including rape and sexual assault, committed by security guards and intelligence police, who, aware of the vulnerability of these people, act with total impunity as they roam the camps at will day and night.

Women who feel cultural shame after being raped or sexually assaulted find it difficult to tell of their experiences. So these crimes are rarely reported. However, through their female friends and young Tamil Nadu activists, including a film-maker, Vijay Chakravarthi, the stories have emerged in recent times. Through an interpreter, I spoke to several people, including activists and the friends of female victims, who revealed the sickening details of these crimes. I learned of a group of six widows and young single women who were forcibly taken from Mandapam camp to Chengalpattu special camp, where they were used as sex slaves by security police for more than six months before being returned.

The victims say it’s been happening for years. In 2010, a 28-year-old Tamil refugee, Kumar Pathmathevi, from a camp in Karur district died after setting herself ablaze. She made a death-bed statement to a female activist, saying she had been raped by three policemen who were conducting inquiries about her husband. Five years later, Vijay tells me of another case that recently came to light after a naked female refugee was found dead outside the Madurai camp. Police said she had been raped. Tamil news websites reported the contents of a police interview with a local informant. “This guy was a driver for a local mafia gang. He told the police that refugee women were being used as sex slaves all the time,” Vijay told me.

Victimising  former fighters

A middle-aged widow, whose late husband was a Tamil Tiger fighter, fled Sri Lanka with her three children in 2011. She said sexual violence in the camps was commonplace against young women, and in particular any former Tamil Tiger fighters. She said any Tamil refugee who arrived with any injury to the body was automatically assumed to be a former fighter and taken to the Chengalputtu special camp. She knew of at least three women who were sexually tortured at this camp. When they came back they showed signs of mental illness, she said. “Their minds are dead. They don’t even know how to ask for food. Some of us feel sorry for them. We take food to them.  We are scared when we do it. If the security guards see us, they say ‘Do you want to sleep with us as well?’ Those men still visit them to satisfy their sexual needs. They hold their hair and hit them. When I look at this I can’t stand it. When our children are out, they come to us and say ‘come and sleep with us or we will claim you’re a Tamil Tiger’ (and get them sent to a special camp.) Even the other Tamil men (refugees) can’t protect us against these people. I don’t know how I’m going to save my own children,” she said.

Vijay said he has attempted to bring these stories to public attention, speaking to well-known Tamil Nadu politicians, such as MDMK party leader Vaiko. However, there is a distinct lack of willingness to bring the issue out into the open. “Vaiko was the only one who wanted to listen and help. Apart from him, no-one was interested,” said Vijay. “Basically, it’s a taboo topic here. So many politicians and media people say that they don’t want to spoil the image of Tamil Nadu.”

Whether it’s avoiding sexual violence or finding enough to eat, and live, the Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka still retain a remarkable capacity for survival. They would not last a few days on the pittance they get from the government so, out of necessity, thousands of them -- men, women and children – illegally flood into the local employment market. Often, leaving the camp for work has to be facilitated either by a bribe or stealth. One man told me he had a job as a painter --- 12 hours a day six days a week for $50 a month --but he was forced to pay guards at the camp 20 per cent of his wage to be allowed out.

Lung disease

Most of the refugees that I spoke to at the camps were employed as “coolies” on building sites, where they lug 50kg bags of cement on their backs. To earn enough to survive, they must carry 300-400 bags a day, six days a week. This gives them $2-$3 a day. For this they must face the probability of a damaged spine or lung disease from cement dust. One woman told me her father had died at 45, five years ago, after his lungs gave out. One group said they knew of 20 men who have died in similar circumstances in the past six months. Now some of their widows have replaced them as coolies, so their children can survive.

Then, when the children, many of whom have been born in the camps, reach mid-teens, and have little prospect of going to college, they leave government schooling – if they are lucky enough to go to these basic schools -- to become cement coolies. The fact that it’s against the law for refugees to work is conveniently ignored by a government that sees no hypocrisy in Indian corporations using these people as virtual slaves while they are denied the basic rights that go with citizenship.

Once you see these places it’s easy to understand why the Indian government wants to hide them from the world. And why some women told me they were prepared to risk going back to Sri Lanka, where they know they could be targeted by the military, which continues to occupy the Tamil-dominated regions in the north and the east and carry out many crimes with impunity, including rape and murder. “We are breathing but we are dead in this life. We may as well die back there,” said one 37-year-old woman who has lived in the camp since she was 12. Yet they are trapped, they say, because they have no capacity to earn the airfare to go home and it’s impossible to return by stealth.

Another widow in her forties reflects the same sentiment: “Coming here is the biggest mistake of my life. I could have given poison to my children and myself in my homeland. In a way, those people who died during the war are lucky. Those of us who survived are dying every day, many times over.”

Many people among the walking dead who you see everywhere in these camps are so traumatised that they long ago stopped giving voice to their suffering. They sit and stare all day into the distance, meekly awaiting their fate.

Others, such as Seemanpillai and Elizabeth, carry their burden with a stoic resistance. They remain good Catholics but they long ago gave up praying for a better life.  These days they ask of God only that one day the Australian government will allow them to visit their son’s grave, along with their three remaining sons. One day, hopefully, we have an Immigration Minister who does not think this is too much to ask.


Trevor Grant is author of ‘Sri Lanka’s Secrets: How The Rajapaksa Regime Gets Away With Murder,’ published by Monash University Publishing, Australia, 2014.


Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

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