Almost there: Helping Sri Lankan refugees return home

09 August 2021

Topics: COVID-19 India Refugees SriLanka

As the devastating second wave of coronavirus sweeps through communities in India, people have died at home and in parking lots outside hospitals, which have run out of beds and life-saving oxygen. Getty Images
At a time when Sri Lankan families are eager to return home after living in India’s refugee camps for as long as 35 years, Act for Peace’s partner on the ground, the Organisation for Eelam Refugees’ Rehabilitation (OfERR), is providing refugees with support and life-changing solutions.

After fleeing their homeland when the brutal Sri Lankan civil war erupted in 1983, refugee families living in India are still waiting to return home.

Although the war has been over since 2009, home is still far from reach for many refugees as they face seemingly insurmountable barriers.

After she recently visited a few camps in India, we spoke with Act for Peace’s Regional Return and Reintegration Advisor, Florina Xavier, about the work that our partner, OfERR, is doing to support refugees through the pandemic, prepare them to get home, and help them rebuild their lives once they arrive.


Florina Xavier, Act for Peace’s Regional Return and Reintegration Advisor. Sharni Boyall / Act for Peace
Florina, please tell us how the second wave of COVID-19 in India affected the camps?

In my home state of Tamil Nadu, almost 60,000 Sri Lankan refugees are living in 107 refugee camps. Families living there are particularly vulnerable to the devastating second wave of COVID-19 in the country, as it is impossible to practice social distancing in cramped and overcrowded camps.

Thankfully, as a trusted provider of medical support in the camps, OfERR are providing refugee families with vital food supplies, medicine, oxygen, and protective clothing; helping them feel safe and supported without having to travel to overburdened hospitals and the pandemic-stricken cities.

For refugees who wish to finally return home, the situation has been particularly tough as the pandemic has added uncertainty about when this will be possible.

What other barriers to getting home are Sri Lankan refugees facing in India?

While there has been a big increase in interest from refugees to return to Sri Lanka during COVID-19, refugees remain reluctant to leave the camps because they are unsure of what the future holds for them back home. They are afraid it won’t be the home they once knew; that they won’t be able find shelter or a job to support their families.  

Another major hurdle is that many refugees don’t have the legal documents needed to travel or access important services, like banks. Sri Lankans who fled the civil war by escaping on crowded boats often left with almost no belongings, including documents like their birth certificates. These families, as well as those who were born in India, face complicated administrative processes to attain critical identity documents and it isn’t always easy accessing the support needed to overcome these barriers from inside the camps.       


At a time when the pandemic is destroying lives and livelihoods in India, OFERR are doing all they can to protect Sri Lankan refugee families living in 107 refugee camps across Tamil Nadu; where cramped living conditions put vulnerable families at heightened risk of infection. Florina Xavier / Act for Peace
What is our partner, OfERR, doing to help them overcome these challenges?

Gifts from generous supporters in Australia are helping OfERR stand with Sri Lankan refugees every step of the way. By educating Sri Lankan families about what to expect when they return home, OfERR is giving families the assistance, information and confidence needed to return home. They’re helping refugees access the important identity documents required to rebuild their lives, like birth certificates. And once refugees step back onto Sri Lankan soil, OfERR is helping some of the most vulnerable families access safe water, shelter and livelihood support, like grants that refugees can use to start businesses.

For many of these most vulnerable families, especially at this time of pandemic, this support is life-changing because it gives them both the power to return home and a sense of control over their lives.  


Finally, please tell us about the “I’m Prepared" program that Act for Peace has been working on with OfERR?

In March, the “I’m Prepared” program came to a successful completion. The program focused on building knowledge, enhancing preparedness and supporting women’s livelihoods. Learn more here.

Too often refugees in general – and refugee women in particular - are excluded from key decision-making processes when returning and reintegrating into their home country, which reduces their power by undermining their roles as leaders in their local communities.

But, through this program, refugee women in India increased their learning about the importance of child and women safety and how to access services or support. They learned about the steps they need to take before returning home, were trained how to identify the strengths and vulnerabilities of members in their own community and gained vital support through women’s livelihoods programs.

I’m very proud that OfERR has made it possible for so many refugees to achieve their full social, economic and political rights, by empowering them to be more active when deciding where to live, now and in the future.