Stateless Tamils register for citizenship in Sri Lanka

[TamilNet, Wednesday, 03 December 2003, 09:28 GMT]
More than 6,000 Tamils of Indian origin registered themselves as Sri Lankan citizens last weekend as part of a 10-day programme by the Ceylon Workers Congress to enable them to gain citizenship. The programme was supported by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The UNHCR in a press release on Wednesday said: “the registration scheme overcomes a critical and long-running problem for an estimated 300,000 Tamils brought to Sri Lanka since the 1820s to work on estates: their inability to claim Sri Lankan citizenship. In October this year, parliament passed legislation that allowed these “stateless" people, along with their children, to receive Sri Lankan citizenship. The campaign will cover both those persons who applied for an Indian passport under the so-called Sirimavo-Shastri Pact in 1964 but who never left Sri Lanka, as well as people who have lived their entire life without a passport or any other identification document. The 10-day registration programme puts the new legislation into effect.

UNHCR Representative Mr. Neill Wright welcomed the Government's initiative that provides Tamils of Indian origin with the legal protections that come with citizenship. “Persons without citizenship are denied some of the most basic rights and entitlements: they cannot open a bank account, own property or work for the government; they cannot obtain an identity card, a birth certificate, a marriage certificate or a passport; if they leave the country they cannot return. For almost 200 years, this has been the predicament of a great many Tamils of Indian origin living in Sri Lanka. The new legislation corrects this injustice,” he said.

The 10-day registration programme, which finishes on Sunday December 7, enables people to register for citizenship at Ceylon Workers Congress offices in more than 50 locations across the country. More than 300 volunteers have given their time to support the scheme.

During a one day training seminar for the volunteers, many older persons who had been working on tea plantations for their entire lives told stories of the hardship they have endured. Many cited the law passed by Parliament in October as an end to a long struggle for recognition.

Most of the stateless up-country Tamils have never known any other country than Sri Lanka and consider it their home. An elderly woman, who prefers to remain anonymous, stated: “This is a great day for us. This is our home, my children and grandchildren have grown up here, gone to school, made friends and married. I no longer need to feel like neglected, poor and sick relatives, who despite the smiles are not welcome here. Now I am able to look each other in their eyes, knowing that we belong here and have our basic human rights protected by the State I feel like a real person for the first time in my life.”

The UNHCR is also mandated to work for the reduction and elimination of statelessness around the world, in accordance with the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.

While basic human rights of stateless persons should be respected in their country of residence, statelessness itself creates vulnerability. Stateless persons hold an unequal status in their societies.

 

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