AGARTALA, April 12 (IANS) - The long-awaited repatriation of tribal refugees from Tripura to neighbouring Mizoram began Tuesday but there is still uncertainty over whether all the migrants here will return home, officials here said.
"A total of 136 tribal families comprising about 755 men, women and children have been sent back Tuesday. By May 14, 800 families involving 4,300 people would be repatriated to their villages in western Mizoram," Kanchanpur Sub-Divisional Magistrate Dilip Chakma told IANS Tuesday.
He said: "A team of Mizoram government officials have been camping in Kanchanpur in north Tripura to take back the refugees. The Tripura government has been providing all logistical support for the purposes."
According to him, the repatriation of the remaining refugees is not yet finalised.
Since October 1997, over 41,000 Reang tribal refugees, locally called Bru, have taken shelter in six camps in north Tripura's Kanchanpur sub-division, adjacent to western Mizoram.
They had fled from their villages after ethnic clashes with the majority Mizos over the killing of a Mizo forest official.
Last month, as many as 17 people, including five children and nine women, were burnt to death March 19 when fire ravaged north Tripura's Naishing Para refugee camp, where over 15,000 tribals have been sheltered for the past 14 years.
More than 20 people suffered burn injuries and over 2,500 huts made of bamboo, weeds and polythene sheets, were reduced to ashes in the camp, some 165 km north of Agartala.
Over 1,400 children were among the affected.
During October-November last year, 523 tribal families comprising 2,610 people were repatriated to their villages in Mizoram.
Hundreds of refugees blocked the Tripura-Mizoram highway, protesting the non-settlement of their eight-point demands, including the signing of a four-partite agreement between the centre, Tripura and Mizoram governments and refugee leaders.
The Mizoram government then suspended the repatriation process.
The home ministry in January broadened the economic package for homebound refugees following mediation by the New Delhi-based rights group Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR).
"Apart from Rs.80,000, cash assistance to each refugee family and free rations for one year, the home ministry will support self-employment schemes to be initiated by the Reang tribals," ACHR director Suhas Chakma told IANS on phone from New Delhi
A special development project for the western region of Mizoram, where the Reang refugees are to be resettled, is also under consideration of the state government and the development of north eastern region (DoNER) ministry, Chakma said.
"If the refugees are keen to come to their homeland, the Mizoram government with the help of Tripura administration, would take back the refugees in a phased manner," a Mizoram government official told reporters in Kanchanpur.
The tribal refugees organised protest rallies recently to express their distress over Mizoram's apathetic attitude towards taking back the migrants.
They also sent a memorandum to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh demanding early solution to the issue.