No Place Like Home

07 February 2020


Act for Peace supports OfERR (Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation ) , which provides Tamil refugees with health, education, nutrition, womans empowerment, alternative energy, livelihoods, personal development and documentation services. The program provides strategies and health records to prepare refugees for their return to Sri Lanka and has a specific focus on the most vulnerable community groups. Image credit: Ben Littlejohn
Living in a refugee camp can feel like a life sentence; not knowing when, or even if, you will ever leave. But thanks to you, one innovative program is bringing new hope; empowering refugees to escape the camps and live a full life once again.  

After brutal civil war erupted in Sri Lanka in 1983, hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankan people escaped to India to seek safety.  Today, over a decade after this conflict ended, more than 64,000 Sri Lankan refugees remain in 107 camps in India. Their lives are no longer at risk, however refugees face other challenges. Refugees can’t vote or own property and their movement is restricted. Employment opportunities are limited and without the ability to earn an income, people struggle to make ends meet. And decades of living in limbo in a refugee camp can cause depression, anxiety and other psychological problems for those who fear there is no end in sight or feel unable to live a full life.

Many long to return home and rebuild their lives, but face seemingly insurmountable barriers in their way. A lack of information means refugees have real concerns about what life holds for them in Sri Lanka, and complicated administrative procedures for obtaining travel documents can put returning home out of reach for many.  Thankfully with your support, our local partner, the Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation (OfERR), is working side by side with families, empowering them to overcome the barriers they face to going home and supporting them every step of the way

OfERR run workshops, like this one, for Sri Lankan refugees that provide vocational training and inform them about every step they need to take to return home safely. Image credit: James Thomson
After living for decades in the camps and cities in India, refugees often don’t know what conditions are like at home. Many worry about their security. Will I be welcomed or rejected? Will I be able to provide for my family? Is someone living on my land? 

Sadly, people smugglers exploit such anxieties for profit by selling the hope of being resettled to Australia.  For already traumatised families, the results can be tragic.  Some of those who have taken this route have drowned; others ended up in detention.  

OfERR is transforming the situation through an innovative new approach. OfERR connects refugees in India with Sri Lankans back home through video chats that can show concerned refugees in India that life back home is, once again, stable and safe.

 When they do decide to leave India, many people don’t have the legal documents needed to travel or access other critical services, like banks. 

“One of the challenges they have is documentation,” says Florina, Act for Peace’s Regional Return and Reintegration advisor in Sri Lanka, “they don’t have any legal documents to say that they are Sri Lankan citizens, which starts from their birth certificates.”

Obtaining these essential citizenship documents isn’t always easy or straightforward when you live in a camp. So in India, OfERR works closely with Sri Lankan families by arranging documentation and equipping them with ‘preparedness passports’, that is, documents that outline every step a returnee needs to take to be fully prepared to return home.

Thanks to OfERR’s work, refugees can get practical support that strengthens their confidence and gives them the power to return. 

They are resilient people," says Florina, "they keep wanting hope, they keep coming back with energy.        

A Sri Lankan woman (31) holds her identity card outside the OfERR office in the town of Chidambaram, India. By providing Sri Lankans living as refugees with identity documents, displaced families in India can finally make the return trip home and gain access to critical services, like banks. Image credit: Richard Wainwright.
Starting a new life in Sri Lanka after decades in exile poses many challenges, but through OfERR, returnees are supported from the moment they arrive. ‘Welcome Groups’ link returnees with people in the community who are there to support them, ensuring people feel connected and valued after years of living in limbo as outsiders in a foreign land.

Of course, rebuilding their lives can be hard when returning families finally arrive in Sri Lanka. The most vulnerable returnees can rely on OfERR to help them to: find shelter or claim land that they own; get job training so that they can provide for their families; and access an education for their children, so that the next generation have the foundations for a fulfilling, peaceful life.   

From India to Sri Lanka, the work of our partner organisation, OfERR, is helping create the conditions for a brighter future.