Plight of Sri Lanka’s displaced people

The plight of Sri Lanka’s displaced people whether from the 22-year long ethnic conflict, the tsunami or floods is indeed pathetic. There have been people who have been spending years on the move or living in refugee camps.

Muslims resident in the Tamil-dominated northern region were chased away from their homes by rebels in an exercise widely acknowledged as ethnic cleansing in October 1990. Since then they have been staying in temporary shelters in the northwest town of Puttalam for more than 15 years, also running the risk of losing their lands in Jaffna since by law if a land is unused for 10 years, the state can acquire it or someone will squat on it. It is in this context that a new report by donors including the UN agencies calling for land to be given to all the displaced irrespective of the kind of displacement is welcome move and needs all the support it can get.

The IDP (Internally Displaced People) Working Group in Sri Lanka is urging the government and all the stakeholders involved in post-tsunami work, that there is a need to provide the same basic rights to the displaced whether they are from the tsunami or affected by years of conflict.

The report on “The internally displaced in Sri Lanka — Discussion paper on Equity,” was initiated and compiled by CARE International, Christian Aid, Jaffna Social Action Centre, among others. Case studies were done in four areas — tsunami-affected IDPs living in transitional homes in southern Tangalle: refugees at the Puttalam welfare centre who were displaced from northern Jafffna in 1990; residents who were affected by both the conflict and the tsunami and living in Manalkadu Welfare Centre in Jaffna; and displaced people living with host families.

The first study shows that while the tsunami-displaced continue to face difficulties, particularly in terms of access to livelihoods, they appear to have received a fair amount of assistance to date. The second study shows that these people continue to live in unsatisfactory temporary shelters, some 15 years after their displacement. While they have access to medical and educational facilities, they lack access to adequate water.

The third set of victims “double affected” by both the conflict and tsunami face poor living conditions in the crowded, exposed and hot environment of the welfare centre. While they have access to medical and educational facilities, there is little livelihood assistance. The fourth study found that the victims have been neglected in terms of assistance programmes. The surveyed population lacked adequate access to medical and educational facilities, they fail to benefit from the same assistance programmes as more visible IDPs, and they have yet to receive any meaningful housing or livelihood help.

The report said that while this is not a representative sample, these case studies indicate that IDP populations in Sri Lanka have not been treated uniformly or equitably. It suggested that the government and all other authorities should adopt a holistic approach that takes the needs of all IDPs into account, with a focus of finding long-term solutions to end their displacement.

Samath, a freelancer, wri-tes for THT from Colombo