It is hard for those who have no access to the camps in the North to form a realistic opinion on the plight of the over 65,000 refugees who are supposed to bestuck in an ‘event horizon’ inside them. While the authorities paint quite a rosy picture of it, their detractors seek to discredit the claim. Assuming that the truth is half way between them, I wish to offer a few suggestions on how to improve the ground situation, depending on my past experience of working for the displaced in the North.
The main complaint is about the conditions in the camp. The tents in which the refugees are housed are reported to be too small, too low and uncomfortable. The material with which the tents are built is said to be unsuited to the hot climate and to make matters worse, the trees that would have provided some cooling shade have been removed by bulldozers. Understandably, what has been provided is the optimum that could have been offered in the rush of settling the exodus from the Vanni but there is no need to demolish what has been already put up at great cost.
I would suggest that the existing structures be used as transit camps for future arrivals white moving out those who are already in them to more congenial habitats. The new cottages should be built with material like cadjan, palmirah and straw. They should be put up among big trees removing only the underbrush for construction work. There is no need to farm out construction to contractors. Those selected to inhabit a particular settlement can build the cottages themselves. That would give them a chance to earn a little pocket money. More importantly, engagement in building their habitat will break the hopelessness of displacement by creating a positive interest.
Selection of settlers for a new camp calls for insight. Lumping together refugees from different localities can lead to disorientation and distress. People who have come from the same village/locality should be housed in the same camp, preferably naming the settlement after the place from which the inhabitants hail. That would give them a sense of identity and security. Work on classification by village should begin immediately as it would automatically link up family members who got dispersed on their way from home.
The recent appointment of refugees to supervise the camps is a step in the right direction. This trend must be further developed by getting the selectees for a new camp to nominate their own committee of management. Officials should work in consultation with the committee in all matters pertaining to the settlement, including clearing, construction, infrastructure, discipline, and maintenance. Worries about security can be minimized by the trust placed in the settlers’ committee. The exercise would also be a first lesson in self-government the government is promising to create in the North.
Another complaint against the camps is their exclusivity. Anxiety about security is understood, having regard to the crisis and past experience. But excluding all visitors creates suspicion by the very announcement, thereby giving credence to negative impressions locally and internationally. For imaginable reasons, admission to camps cannot be given as in the case of a public exhibition. On the other hand accessibility naturally creates credibility. Therefore government must give thought to the appointment of committees of camp visitors as in the case of hospitals. This committee must be representative of all interests, local and foreign.
The original announcement that refugees would be confined to the camps for three years was a stunner. Fortunately that limit has been since contradicted; however there is still no indication of how long the refugees would be kept in the camps and no one appears to have any clue about it. This is a matter that should engage the immediate attention of government planners, if any.
Naturally the period of stay cannot be calculated en bloc as resettlement has to proceed progressively area by area. But a time frame has to be worked out methodically for each settlement and notified to the refugees. That would give them a target of hope and the officials a coordinated programme of work.