My Life with Freedom and Dignity

Selvananthan is a 36 years old refugee returnee living with his family in Meenkaamam village in Trincomalee district in East Sri Lanka. Having lived in India as a refugee for 10 years in Arni camp in Tiruvannamalai district, he returned to Sri Lanka in 2016. With the reintegration support provided under the Return and Reintegration Program (SLRRRP), he was able to make an informed decision about his future, reunite himself with his family and restart his life back in his own land. His story demonstrates how the reintegration support can be effective to assist the refugee returnees reintegrate successfully.

Selvananthan was the third son in his family in Mutur village in Trincomalee. Despite his elder brother’s death, who drowned in a river, he had a very happy childhood in his native village. After completing higher secondary education in 1999, he experienced several insecurities due to forcible recruitment by militant groups and army round ups. His family had to protect him from all the threats and dangers and therefore, he was unable to pursue his dreams. He fell in love with a girl and they married in year 2000. His second brother’s death due to brain fever the following year was a second shock to his family and the wife and toddler were left alone and hopeless.

The increasing militancy and insecurity in the Northeast forced his family to displace within the Eastern Province at first, however, the worsening security situation led him to leave the country with his wife and two children to seek asylum in India in 2006, but the parents stayed in Sri Lanka. They were accommodated in Arni refugee camp in Tiruvannamalai district. He soon picked up painting as an occupation to earn a livelihood for the family. Though he has been receiving welfare handouts from the Indian government and generating income from his livelihood, his mind always yearned for his parents and his home in Trincomalee. He missed the support of the parents and relatives when he met with an accident on his motor bike. When his wife gave birth to a third child, he had to pay Rs. 50,000/- for a minor surgery in the child’s leg. With his inability to pay such a huge sum for the child’s treatment, he was missing the support of the family to share his feelings and pain. This situation fostered a desire to return to Sri Lanka and reunite with his family. He also had a responsibility to arrange the marriage for his sisters, who were still living with his parents in Trincomalee, and he had a strong wish to see his children grow up in their own land with full freedom and dignity as citizens of Sri Lanka.

Seven years after the war ended in 2009 and the overall situation in Sri Lanka had improved he made a decision to return. He received support from OfERR to obtain Sri Lankan travel documents and exit permit for India. Further, he was supported through the Humanitarian Information Centre (HIC) in Arni camp to register with UNHCR in order to receive support under the ‘Voluntary Repatriation’ program. Nevertheless, he had some apprehension about the situation in Sri Lanka and the support systems to reintegrate himself in his own place successfully. The protection awareness program he received from AfP and OfERR helped him stand firm on the decision to return and get prepared for return.

He returned to Sri Lanka on 15th March 2016 with his wife and three children. When he arrived in his village, he had an emotional welcome by his parents. However, he was deeply saddened to see his half demolished house and the land that was filled with rubble and bushes. The parents’ frequent displacements and their decision to stay in urban areas for the sake of his sister’s education caused the negligence of their house.

The visit from OfERR’s Welcome Group members to his house boosted him morally. He started clearing his land, and with the guidance from OfERR staff, he registered with the local government to be receive resettlement assistance and National identity card. After being included in OfERR’s database, his needs were identified and presented to the support cells in the district secretariat as well as in the advocacy meetings that Trincomalee staff had with the government officials.

Since his child had not registered for Sri Lankan birth and Citizenship, the welcome group approached the central record room and the Department of Immigration and Emigration to obtain Sri Lanka birth certificate and citizenship for his child, who was born in India. The support from the welcome group members and OfERR staff instilled confidence in him. Subsequently, he decided to have his Indian driving license converted to a Sri Lankan driving license which was done in one day.

He soon engaged in farming in his family’s land of one acre on which he grows rice, and he also grows vegetables from his home garden. In addition, he does daily labour work to support his family’s income. His two children are enrolled in the nearby school. With financial help from his wife’s family, he bought a motorbike to move around faster.

Recently he was included in the government’s housing scheme providing him a grant of Rs.784,000 which has enabled him to start building a house on his own land. He was also to arrange his oldest sister’s wedding, and he helped his second sister receive OfERR’s education loan to pursue higher education in India where she is studying for her B.A in English at Matha Arts & Science College in Tamil Nadu.

He says, “I had several concerns about returning to my native place though I made the decision to return. During impasse, OfERR helped me clarify my doubts and concerns and they also helped me prepare for my return. From my experience, there are plenty of resources and schemes in our country. If you can work hard with perseverance, you can stand on your feet without any difficulty and lead your life with freedom and dignity.”

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