At 76 Austin Fernando, a veteran of the Sri Lankan bureaucracy, is perhaps the oldest to hold the post of High Commissioner in India. During his visit to Chennai to get first-hand knowledge of the situation regarding Tamil refugees, he said that "Sri Lanka needs them, we want them to return". fragments:
What did you bring to Chennai?
We have a team of officials coming from Colombo, including Sumith Nakandala, extra secretary [Ministry of Foreign Affairs]. He brought officials from other departments, such as the Controller General of Immigration and Emigration and representatives from the office of the Registrar General. They interviewed refugees who have two major problems. One is about the worried document & # 39 ;, that is passport. The other is birth certificate. There are other issues such as the exit permit, which have to do with the Indian government. But these are the two [problems that] the Sri Lankan government must look at the needs of the people and satisfy them. We had them [refugees] come here [office of the Deputy High Commissioner] to meet our officials and tried to solve their problems as much as possible.
How many such cases exist here?
There were 100 people who were interviewed for two days, while they treated the cases of 211 people. Every person who came spoke about his or her wife or husband or children.
How does the process of voluntary repatriation of refugees go? Is it going to happen in an incremental way?
Voluntary repatriation is not easy [task]. When they [refugees] [get] repatriated, they would not want to come again in difficult situations. They prefer comfortable or easy situations.
There are two ways to look at voluntary repatriation. First, the people who send the refugees – in this case Mr. Krishnamoorthy [Deputy High Commissioner] and the Indian government, which wants to send people through voluntary repatriation. The other is the ones who receive the refugees. When they return to Sri Lanka, these people must be resettled comfortably, easily and acceptably.
What is the position on the structured aid package for those who go back?
The package has different components. The base must be attended, such as house, land to live [on] and assistance with resettlement and rehabilitation.
Then prime minister [Ranil Wickremesinghe] was here [in New Delhi in October 2018], a decision was made that the verification of people – 3,815 names [of the refugees] – must be carried out by the Indian government. The return package has to be worked out and that is the responsibility of the Sri Lankan government.
I'm not sure how far the verification is [process] is advanced. Because we are trying to bring refugees back to their home areas, there must be a package that needs to be upgraded.
Have the refugees, in their interactions with you, communicated any concerns or expectations about return?
They were all about the development of the livelihood. That is a very important thing. I went with Mr. Nakandala and met people on the [M.S.] Swaminathan Foundation, who works in this area. We want them to come up with a proposal because they had done some work in the nineties.
Of the 97,000 refugees, based on your assessment, how many are willing to return?
It will be known when the verification process is complete. It is likely that the Minister of the Interior will decide here.
The Indian side will conduct an extensive investigation to find out what the intention of the refugees is to return voluntarily.
What is your message to the refugees living in Tamil Nadu?
I think Sri Lanka needs them. We want them to return. And after a catastrophic situation, people do not get the best of what they would like to have. But we will try to give the best [offer] for everyone who returns.