Northern Sri Lankan Tamils in Colombo

This is an excerpt from Dignity in Movement: Borders, Bodies and Rights.
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Migration is about people: their aspirations, fears, triumphs, and tragedies. The 26 year-long civil war in Sri Lanka forced hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils to flee their places of origin in the northern part of the island and seek refuge elsewhere. As a result, a huge number of them migrated to the capital city of Colombo to find a way out of the island and secure a better future. Several succeeded in migrating abroad while the rest settled down and integrated in Colombo. This process of integration is the result of rural-urban dichotomies in income, employment opportunities, and a future free from uncertainties. This chapter thus aims to address the notion of ‘home’ among northern Sri Lankan Tamils: how they locate ‘home’ and their approaches towards returning to their places of origin. Drawing on their life experiences in Colombo, I show that, through integration, they have succeeded to adapt to the new lifestyle and view it as a more suitable place to live compared with their former homes. My main argument revolves around the idea that displacement has facilitated the recreation of ‘home’ in Colombo.

In general, the term ‘home’ is used to denote a material asset or a physical space in which to take shelter (Gureyeva-Aliyeva and Huseynov 2011). Geographically, displaced persons, who flee due to wars, view home as rooted in their places of origin. Walicki (2011) and Chattoraj (2017) presume that, many times, these persons view the abandoned places as their ‘home’ and want to return. The focus on either the material or geographical aspects of home underplays its more symbolic and existential dimensions. In addition, it results in a representation of home as an unproblematic and static space where culture and identity are rooted (Malkki 1995; Bakewell 2004; Jansen and Löfving 2011).

In the context of migration, currently, renegotiations over time and space have become a new way to understand the concept of home (Chattoraj and Gerharz 2019b). Displaced persons, while on move, experience continuous loss of home, yet reconstruct them (Jansen and Löfving 2011; Taylor 2015). Home experience, for them, entails both ‘uprootings’ and ‘regroundings’ (Ahmed et al. 2003). Indeed, when locating their homes, they usually ascribe a sense of belongingness, be it attachment or detachment, to both their former and present homes (Chattoraj and Gerharz 2019a). While some experience a perceived loss of a sense of home and only view their former homes to be their ‘homes’, others carry home within themselves and experience it as a ‘journey’ (Mallett 2004). Thus, the term ‘home’ denotes not only a physical space for sheltering and satisfying biological needs but also a social, cultural, political, and affective space where individuals give meaning to their everyday life experiences (Blunt and Dowling 2006; Taylor 2015).

Within the context of internally displaced persons’ (IDPs) sense of belonging in Colombo, this chapter offers the way displacement has transformed their sense of belonging and cultivated a new kind of meaning to home. Thus, I delve into their integration stories (providing new opportunities and a scope for personal fulfillment) with Colombo.


This research is qualitative in nature and has used primary and secondary data for the analysis. Interviews and personal communications were the major sources of primary data which were collected in Colombo between January-March 2013. The findings discussed in the empirical sections are based on a total number of 24 interviews with IDPs in Colombo, who fled during the civil war of 1983. For security reasons, I have used pseudonyms for all the respondents.

All the mentioned cases demonstrate the strategies of recreating home in Colombo followed by the reasons why they are unwilling to return to their places of origin in the northern provinces. Memory, as well as future perspectives and aspirations determine the ways in which people relate to their homes. This material shows that, for the displaced, integrating in Colombo is a necessary step in order to develop the capacity to formulate perspectives and aspirations and to envision the future.

Home and the Sense of Belonging

This section develops a conceptual and analytical framework to analyze the respondents’ narratives of how conflict and displacement shape their concept of home that has been extensively discussed in the empirical sections of the chapter. Interdisciplinary research on home and migration has often assumed that home, identity, and belonging are attached to a single, site-specific geographical place. Home, in that regard, can be understood ‘as a particularly significant kind of place with which, and within which, we experience strong social, psychological, and emotive attachments’ (Easthope 2004, 135). When people are forced to leave that place, it is often that they lose their homes and become homeless (Perez-Murcia 2019a). Therefore, for them, returning home closes the so-called ‘refugee/displacement cycle’. However, ambiguity does exist. There have been several cases where one spends one’s entire life in a single place without experiencing any kind of belonging or any sense of cultural identity to home. In cases of refugees and IDPs, often, the idea of home challenges the idea of ‘return’ as a prevailing ‘durable solution’ (Chattoraj 2018a). Because returning home, for them, is neither desirable nor viable (Chattoraj 2018b).

Those escaping from conflict areas (homes) may not desire to return due to appalling crimes, such as rape and torture. For others, home does not exist any longer as they have been destroyed by the conflict. As Jansen and Löfving (2011, 1) state, ‘people’s “place in the world” after war and repatriation continues to be violently challenged’. And after experiencing such violence and displacement, both the former homes and the people change. Thus, I show that IDPs can remake home regardless of the place in which they are settled. Return might be the most desirable and viable possibility for some, but this is not true for all of them. When people are forced to flee their homes against their will, their desire to return becomes ‘invariably powerful’ (Kibreab 1999, 404). As Turner (2013, 486) stresses, home ‘can be both dynamic and moored – a location, or a set of relationships that shape identities and feelings of belonging’. While some experience the sense of being neither fully separated from their (former) homes nor fully integrated into the new locale, others may form manifold attachments to several places they came across throughout their migratory journeys.

Having said this, I tend to demonstrate the sense of belongingness to understand how individuals and collectives construct and experience their position within a society (Chattoraj and Gerharz 2019b). A shattered sense of belonging, however, increases the risk for psychological and physical dysfunction (Ullah et al. 2020b). In this regard, it is important to highlight integration and assimilation, which are considered to overlap with the sense of belonging.

A sense of belonging to a particular place or places is created through several traces that results in enjoyment of the place – these traces may include material things, non-material attitudes, performative practices, and groups of people – their languages, way of life, actions, and activities may be welcomed by the host or excluded by the host (Ullah et al. 2020b). Within the host destination, there is a social order placed by the locals (e.g., signs, laws, warnings, policies, and regulations) that is ascribed to migrants if accepted. Therefore, when accepted or agreeable to the migrant – which can activate a sense of belonging by the locals – this order opens up the process for migrants to feel a sense of belonging – if not, therefore social, cultural, and even geographical bordering may occur. Thus, we may see the development of ‘China town’, ‘Little Manila’, ‘Little India’, or ‘Little Jaffna’, where people with similar cultural and social backgrounds may have a magnet to stick to each other due to similarities.

Why Colombo? 

Located on the West coast of the island, Colombo comprises the majority of Sinhalese people in Sri Lanka (around 41 percent of the total population), several Tamil-speaking persons from the north and east, along with other minorities like Malays, Borahs, Burghers, and a large number of foreigners (Chattoraj 2017). Since the 1950s, Colombo, on one hand, kept witnessing riots, bombs, and violence; on the other hand, it was a relative safe place from the fear of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and exploitation by other Tamils. Thus, Colombo became ‘home’ for several Tamils who fled the protracted war regions.

One of the neighborhoods in Colombo, Wellawatte, popularly known as Little Jaffna, is inhabited by a large number of Tamils following a mass exodus from Jaffna in 1995 (Maunaguru 2010). Wellawatte has historically been known as a very multi-ethnic locale, with a mix of both affluent as well as lower-end neighborhoods (Thurairajah et al. 2019). The Tamils chose Wellawatte because of safety, as well as to maintain distance from the Sinhalese community (Collyer 2011).

Recreating the Sense of Home is Colombo

The foremost concern for the displaced persons revolves around ‘where to go’ and ‘where to stay’ in physical terms. Thus, ‘materiality’ plays a pivotal role when it displaced persons reflect upon their ‘displacement journeys’ and ‘experiences of home’ (Perez-Murcia, 2019b). This section argues that home is conceptualized by the IDPs as a ‘material space’ where ideas of socioeconomic, physical, and emotional stability interplay over time and space. Therefore, they view home as a place where they can become self-sufficient in regard to socioeconomic aspects, as well as physically and emotionally stable. The material structure, in this regard, evokes a domestic space in which ideas of comfort, everyday routines, and social practices interact.

‘The last couple of decades have changed my style of living. Thanks to Colombo’. This quote hints at the present living style of Pahni, who migrated to Colombo from Naina Thivu (in Jaffna) to escape war, violence, and trauma. He is socioeconomically well-settled in Colombo and living a life that is completely different to his (past) home. The capital city has brought transformations in his life. His personal definition of ‘a decent survival’ is ‘to earn a lot of money and live a life where there is air conditioner, refrigerator, television, washing-machine, computer, and several other electronic gadgets. Without them you can live but not survive!’ Colombo is the only place in the whole country where he can earn a satisfying salary so that he can afford to lead a ‘decent life’. To maintain this ‘decent’ life-style, he needs to maximize his income, which is only possible in the capital city. Vani, another IDP near Jaffna, showed that displacement has helped her to experience ‘home while moving’ because home is a family nest and all the experiences of living in different places move with her wherever she goes. ‘This city (Colombo) has brought me refuge and helped me to achieve my goals. Thus, here is home’. Navya, who migrated from Killinochi, also stressed the centrality of the sense of family and friends to experience home as a ‘mobile space’. She was with her family all the time (pre- and post-displacement), and thus experienced the sense that she moved her home from one place to another. She stated that ‘home can be both rooted and mobile as far it satisfies the emotional and material needs of the individual’.

The narratives of Lina and Fiza suggested that they have succeeded in overcoming the sense of ‘being in limbo’ because of their abilities to identify opportunities in Colombo where they could refashion a life project on the move and adapt to change. Post-displacement, Nairita and Shikhar enrolled in higher education (a goal they said would be difficult to achieve in Mullaitivu) and joined social organizations that fight for the rights of the displaced. This helped them progress and move ahead in their lives. Amnah, a 60-year-old woman does not let displacement act as any kind of barrier in her life: ‘displacement doesn’t define who I am. What defines who I am is what I used to be before displacement. So, I decided not to see myself as a displaced person but simply as Amnah. I’ll never forget I was brutally uprooted from my home [Jaffna], but I decided to see displacement as an opportunity to enrich my skills and move forward.’

‘Displacement has become a blessing to me.’ To this end, Sourya commented that he feels extremely lucky and blessed to have been displaced to Colombo. If he would have been in Velanai (his hometown), he would have never experienced this luxury, and ‘would have died being unemployed or have either become a farmer or a primary school teacher at the most’. His uncertainty comes from the fact that, in the post-war northern part of Sri Lanka, lack of youth employment is one of the most alarming issues. This is because, during the years of warfare and isolation, the area’s significant manufacturing and education industries shuttered. Moreover, the continuing confiscation of land by the military, even today, since 2009, has acted as a significant barrier to the rebuilding of livelihoods and employment opportunities in a region with limited natural resources.

Shiba, whose life has been affected by conflict and displacement since he was 8 years old, illustrates best the complexities of finding a safe place to call home within national boundaries: ‘Return isn’t an option for me or for my mother… The place we used to call home no longer exists. I was there [Mannar] recently and I found only destruction and devastation: the sweet memories of home have gone. The shelter is destroyed and the happy memories with my siblings is only memories… I used to see Mannar as a paradise, but now I hate it. I have experienced enough of violence; now I am 37 and I live in a place [Colombo] where families can stay together without any kind of fear.’ 

However, ‘In the 90s, I really wanted to return to my home’: Alka, at the time of her displacement, was so fond of her hometown (Mullativu) that she wanted to return. Her childhood memories were filled with a feeling of contentment: ‘I really loved to be in Jaffna… I fell in love with the quietness… I used to ride bicycles and roam around without any fear. Our ‘home’ was the best thing we had. We felt like staying so close to nature there’. Having freedom and living close to nature are important aspects that she had in her childhood. ‘[B]ut as days passed my feelings also changed’.

With the passage of time, the sense of belonging and the kind of attachment, that each of the respondents had to their places of origin changed. Their accounts highlight that, during their initial days, they not only had to cope with the pain of leaving their homelands, but also had to confront the resentments of a hostile Sinhalese population in many cases in the 1990s. Nevertheless, they kept on trying to adjust to the new cultural setting (language, food, religion, way of life, belief, dress, etc.). And in doing so, they also suffered a conflict between individuals and cultures based on cultural factors. Embracing all the hardships, each one respondent succeeded in making an identity of their own in the (new) Colombo society. Their struggles helped the fond memories of their past lives fade. Therefore, they have had the strong feeling that ‘to what we were attached in the 1990s have become detachment now’. Attachment to their places of origin has become ‘past’; as it failed to create any impact on individuals’ lives in the formation of their present identity. Also, their rural homes, with the onset of globalization and mobility, have lost their importance. People in today’s world are more inclined to adopt urban lifestyles, which greatly influence their self-image and identity and have distanced them from their rural lifestyles. Their childhood memories, no doubt, were entirely positive, but as soon they distanced themselves from their homes, things changed. The distance in time and space has enabled them to differentiate the positive and negative experiences from childhood by cultivating feelings of belonging to their homes represented by people and nature. Furthermore, the relationship between rural and urban lifestyles forms a point of departure for investigating social distinctions (Chattoraj 2018a).

The value of having a rural background in an urban context can be analyzed in the context of a cultural hierarchy where the urban displays a hegemonic position, even if the countryside retains an important position as a basis for central cultural values. This echoes the story of Veerat, where the stability of today’s life restricts them from returning and thus inviting uncertainties. Furthermore, several other narratives disclose that attitudes toward return vary over time. Priti and Firoz stressed that return was not an option for remaking home. Either being threatened by the Sri Lankan army or compelled to move again was for them an overarching source of concern. Rather than a homecoming, they are afraid that return might lead to ‘new uprooting’ and the ‘beginning of a new uncertainty’. Those who fled because of the forced recruitment in the LTTE consistently reject the idea of return as an opportunity for remaking home. Pilani demonstrated that her former home in Jaffna is not a home anymore: ‘I was forcibly recruited in the LTTE from where, luckily, managed to run away. I cannot see that place as home. That place only evokes sadness, anguish, sorrow, kidnapping, and prison. I hope never to return there’.

Azam went to visit his birthplace Mannar: ‘In 2009, I drove to Mannar alone for the first time after 1990 and the first question I encountered was, ‘Who are you? Why are you here?’ I was really astonished hearing this as Mannar is my hometown, my birthplace, I have the right to come… I have lost my identity in Mannar, now I am a stranger to them so they ask me all kinds of rubbish questions’. His arrival in his hometown in Mannar left him in a doubt about his own identity. His family used to be well-known in the region, so he was taken aback to know that he is a stranger to everyone who now stays in his area. This sounds annoying, but true. During the war, like his family, most of his neighborhood had shifted either to Colombo or to other parts of the country. Subsequently, most of their homes have been occupied by Tamils, displaced from the north in 1995. Therefore, his identity is at stake as no one he knew was there.

This identity problem strongly influenced his idea of and feelings towards his home. It also played a pivotal role in his decision whether to return or not to return to Mannar. To him, all his former relationships in and of the town, magnified in his imagination, had changed over time and were unmatched by the experience of his visit. He was disappointed that relationships were ‘not what they used to be’. This also means that he would not be enjoying his family’s former status, as they are ‘new’ to the present occupants of the town. Therefore, his first visit, which was supposed to be the first physical and emotional connection with his place of origin, a meeting of past and present, of imaginations about his (past) home and the reality of the present, turned out to be disappointing and painful. A complexity of feelings arose for him when he faced comments on entering the town: ‘you are a stranger to us’. His dissatisfied first visit shattered his perception of ‘home’, and he continues to view Colombo as his home.

All these experiences made a strong impression in terms of the way the respondents view their former homes; they also shape their hopes of finding a safe place to call home within the national borders. Return is just ‘impossible’. They believe that it is their responsibility to look after their past homes, as they are the last symbol of their parents. They are willing to renovate and rebuild the broken structures and are also looking forward to spending a day or two during holidays to feel at ease. But at no point in time will they return to settle there. Thus, I argue, the meaning of home changes for IDPs as they are affected in subtle ways due to displacement. No matter where the location is, they understand home as ‘a dynamic space’, a space which cannot only be made, lost, and remade on the move, but which is also in permanent transformation.

Concluding Remarks

The contribution of this chapter is to unravel how the IDPs in Colombo strategize to recreate their sense of home. This chapter has shown that conflict and displacement contribute a lot in shaping their sense of home along with their aspirations to return. Those who locate home in the northern parts see themselves as outsiders in Colombo and believe return to be the only way to recover a sense of home. Conversely, those who locate home in Colombo experience a mobile sense of home. Second-generation IDPs are more attached to Colombo. I observed that they have given up some of their traditional norms and values in order to integrate and, thus, the value and importance of their ‘past homes’ has gradually decreased with time. They have recreated their ‘past’ home culture, which is influenced by norms and values from Colombo. They identify displacement as a blessing in disguise and believe integrating into Colombo paved their way to aspire for a better future. This has also led them to reconsider and renegotiate their attachment to their ‘homes’. This brings in the argument that the ‘attachment to home’ implies a ‘positive affective bond’ where an individual must maintain closeness to a specific place alters with time, place, and priority. The discussed respondents have their own tales to tell regarding their displacement; nevertheless, when it comes to their decision of return, all of them share the commonality of ‘no-return’. They have adapted themselves to the city and have asserted their own individual attachments. Also, they fear an uncertain future at their places of origin.

This chapter shows that the IDPs are reproducing their privilege in the landscape of Colombo. Besides, it also demonstrates a contrasting view of the notion of ‘return’. Return, for some, has been perceived as ‘the only opportunity to remake home’ and ‘close the cycle of life’, while others perceive it as an ‘uncertain beginning’ and ‘new uprooting’. It is not only in terms of the material challenges and opportunities to remake their former homes, but also about how to deal with painful memories of violence attached to those places. The IDPs are happily settled in Colombo and are unlikely to return to the rural life where livelihood opportunities are confined to either agriculture, labor work, or fishing. Moreover, if they return, they might have to experience ‘social exclusion’ from the rural locals who stayed back and suffered immensely due to the war.


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