Sri Lanka: concentration camps or welfare centres ?
Now that the war is over we are getting very contradictory reports on the situation in Sri Lanka. On 8 August Amnesty International criticised the Sri Lanka government for forcibly confining internally displaced people (IDPs) in camps. Meanwhile the Centre for Policy Alternatives has presented a petition to the government saying that 300,000 civilians are being detained illegally. The former chief justice Sarath Silva fears that the continuing confinement of Tamils could cause a new war.
Sections of the Tamil diaspora have described the camps as being part of a genocidal agenda. The government calls the camps “welfare centres”. Critics call them “concentration camps”.
A group of volunteers summarised their observations after visiting the camps. They said that:
many families have relatives to go to but are kept in the camps;
families are separated in different zones;
the camps are administered by armed military personnel;
and they concluded that aid agencies should be able to talk to the displaced.
The editor of The Hindu, N Ram, described Menik Farm: “Conditions in these camps are much better than has been depicted, without visiting the camps, in western media reports. Moreover, they are visibly better than conditions in Sri Lankan refugee camps in India, which are still mostly inaccessible to journalists, researchers, and other outsiders.” This is not to say that Menik Farm is a Club Mediterranée, but it isn’t Belsen either. I was surprised to read that in April, before the war was over, banks had set up ATMs in the camps. The Sri Lankan government is meeting basic needs, including education for schoolchildren and vocational training for youths.
However, the Tamil News says that according to “reliable sources”, foreigners are being misled by being shown the better facilities.
Laurent Sury, head of mission for Médecins Sans Frontières, observes that “with such a large number of people concentrated together, there is always the risk of waterborne disease with the rains.” The World Health Organisation says no large outbreaks of disease have been reported so far, although there is a risk of malaria and diarrhoea, and now there are worries about skin diseases.
Meanwhile an Indian medical team arrived in Sri Lanka on 10 March and set up a hospital in Pulmoddai in the Trincomalee district to receive IDPs being brought by Red Cross ships from the areas held by the LTTE. India now feels that conditions have improved sufficiently to withdraw by the end of August.
Adnan Khan, country director of the World Food Programme, confirms that “food supplies have never been affected by access restrictions.” He said his people were able to move freely within the camps.
One of the reasons given for holding people in the camps and restricting access was to weed out hard-core LTTE fighters. Interhamwe infiltration and intimidation was a serious problem in the camps housing Rwandan refugees in Goma. There have been reports of LTTE posters appearing in the Sri Lankan camps.
The army is finding large stores of weapons, ammunition and explosives hidden by the LTTE and expects to recover more. Vavuniya District Tamil National Alliance MP, S Kishor, said he was aware that around 50,000 IDPs have escaped from welfare camps by paying money to police and army personnel. Defence chief Gotabhaya Rajapaksa warned this could be a part of a strategy to revive the LTTE.
Many of us living in Sri Lanka feared that, despite the defeat of the LTTE, children traveling to school on buses or people buying food in markets would continue to be maimed and killed. A friend who was often vehement in her criticism of the president said: “I thank the president for finishing off the LTTE, who did nothing for the Tamils here. They represented the Tamils overseas. I thank the president because we do not hear of any deaths anymore due to bombs. What a relief that is to those of us who live here.”
The government says it will take at least six months to make the areas from which IDPs fled habitable again. The LTTE littered the area with land mines. India has already sent de-mining experts and the UK has promised £500,000 to the Mines Advisory Group.
Houses need to be rebuilt and other facilities provided: the LTTE controlled the area but neglected the infrastructure. The government plans to resettle at least 80% of those in the camps by the end of the year and rehabilitate over 10,000 ex-LTTE cadres and thousands of families who had direct contacts with the LTTE.
The UNHCR described a previous resettlement of 2,231 to seven villages in the Musali division in the southern part of Mannar district, which at one time was controlled by the LTTE: “The government has applied good practices in IDP return…The process was carried out in safety and dignity.”
On 9 June, 2,120 Tamils and Muslims were re-settled. At the end of June, some 9,000 people aged 60 or more were allowed to leave the camps and join their relatives. On 5 August, 1,100 people boarded 70 buses to return to Jaffna, Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Ampara in areas where de-mining, reconstruction of roads, supply of electricity and water were already completed. “I’m happy to go back to my own house. I never thought that we would be able to resettle in such a short period,” P Sundaralingam told Reuters in Jaffna.
The Canadian minister Bev Oda was encouraged by what she saw in the camps. “This is not an ideal situation,” she said but “I would say that in partnership with international organisations, the government of Sri Lanka is making very good efforts to meet the basic needs.’’ The Tamil journalist DB Jeyaraj writes: “I ask readers not to engage in ethnic-orientated recrimination about the IDP plight. Please see those caught up in a humanitarian tragedy as human beings and not as ethnic beings.”