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Sri Lankan ‘Gypsies’ Prevented From Settling Down By Lack Of Official Records

A community of former gypsies have formed a village in northern central Sri Lanka. But thanks to a vicious circle of missing papers, they are finding it difficult.

07.02.2017  |  
A scene from the gypsy village where many families share one water source.

Her people were tired of the gypsy life in Sri Lanka, says R. Kaali Amma , leader of a community group of what are known in the country as “telugu” living in the village of Siyambalagaswawa in the Mihintale area.

Telugu people, a group classified as such because they spoke the Telugu language, the majority of whom were originally from the Indian states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Long-time residents of Sri Lanka, the group were known for their gypsy lifestyles, with the women telling fortunes and the men training monkeys to do tricks and charming snakes for a living.

There are children who cannot be sent to school because they don’t have birth certificates.

The children could not go to school, the adults could not get proper jobs and when they travelled by bus nobody would come close because they say we smell, Amma complains. So Amma’s group – made up of about 30 families with around 60 children among them – decided to settle down in one place, in northern Sri Lanka.

Despite the best efforts of local authorities in the area, who have supplied the gypsy families with tented housing until wooden buildings can be constructed as well as health care services, there is still a big problem: Documentation.

“There are children who cannot be sent to school because they don’t have birth certificates,” Amma explains. “And they do not have birth certificates because their parents don’t have marriage certificates. And,” she continues, “they do not have marriage certificates because they never had birth certificates.”

/මේ අයට ස්වයං රැකියාවක් සොයාදීමේ පොදු වැඩපිළිවෙළක් අවශ්‍යය

It’s a vicious bureaucratic cycle that cannot be unwound. K. Samanthi’s son, who is four and a half years old, is one example. He will not be able to go to school because he does not have a birth certificate. Another 28-year-old father says all four of his children face the same problem – this is because he never had a birth certificate.

The head of government services in Mihintale, Divisional Secretary Ruwan Ekanayake, says he has told his officials to hand out birth certificates and that he was also trying to prepare long term training schemes for the young people of the community.

There are also still problems with early marriage in the gypsy community; marrying after the age of 13 is a tradition within the group and walking through the village, with its unfinished buildings, it is common to see 15 or 16-year old girls with children.

To observers it seems unfair that just when these people have decided to live a different, healthier and more settled life, they are prevented from doing so by a few missing papers.

 /ළමයින් වැඩි දෙනා දැන් අකාලයේම වැඩිහිටියන් වී හමාරය.