Human Security, IDPs and Refugees, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

Vanni displaced: when will they be free from clutches of tigers and lions?

Several months ago, the government of Sri Lanka made announcements “inviting” displaced people in Vanni to come to government controlled areas, saying that they would be well taken care of.

In the last few weeks, media reports indicated that several hundreds of people had come to government controlled areas. Pictures and statements were made to media, showing members of the armed forces providing food to people who had fled Vanni. Most media institutions had been happy to limit themselves to share with the public the information shared by the government.

What most media didn’t report and what the government has not told Sri Lankans and the world is that all these people are now being detained against their will. From 21st to 30th November, 335 people had crossed the Omanthai checkpoint and were being detained in Menik Farm, Chettikulam, in the Vavuniya district. Some others are reported as being detained in Omanthai school (Vavuniya district) and more than 100 in Jaffna

Some of these people want to go and live with their relatives, few want to stay in the camp, but would like to go out and look for some work. All would like to enjoy freedom.

Indeed, that is why they had fled Vanni – as children and adults were being forcibly being recruited by the LTTE, as civilians were being killed and injured by government’s military advances, as there was not enough food, shelter, livelihood etc. Ironically, these people who found it hard to get away due to restrictions on movement imposed by the tigers, in the name of “liberation” now find themselves detained and confined by the lions in the name of “national security”.

Its clear to me that what these people have got is far from the family reunification and freedom they were looking for when they managed to escape the clutches of the tigers.

My experience of Sri Lankan culture is that we try to treat our visitors well, and we plan this in advance if we invite them. I had experienced this all over Sri Lanka. But sadly, the government which went to great lengths to “invite” people in Vanni to come to government controlled areas have not made adequate arrangements.

Despite loud pronouncements that the government will look after these people even if UN and NGOs leave, it was painfully obvious to me in a recent visit to Vavuniya – Chettikulam that people still rely on UN and NGOs to support them even in their most basic needs – and that these agencies had done more preparations to help the displaced than the Government which invited them!

Indeed, Government agents are now asking UN agencies and NGOs to provide assistance. And in turn, UN and NGOs are stuck in a dilemma of helping and supporting a detention centre and not responding to basic needs of the people which the government is not providing.

Who are being detained?
Amongst the people forcibly confined in Menik Farm is a 10 day old infant, who was born in flight, and was taken to the Menik Farm. The facilities provided by the government are so basic, that it was an Army officer that had felt sorry for this infant, and personally provided a plastic basin for this infant.

There are also pregnant women, unaccompanied mentally disabled women, patients with diabetes, asthma, high blood pressure and unaccompanied children and youth.

Lack of privacy for women, water and sanitation facilities, education & health
Privacy for women is almost non existent. Men and women have been compelled to sleep in one hall, and there is also no privacy for women in bathing places. It had been reported that no roof and doors in the toilets in the multi purpose hall.

Although people who arrived in the initial days received mat, towel, bed sheets, clothes, bathing soap, laundry soap, the latter arrivals were mostly receiving only food.

Although there are several students, what I heard is that they are unable to go to school. It is not clear whether the students who are due to sit for the General Certificate of Education (Ordinary Level) will be able to sit for their exams in the coming weeks. There is also a fear that few students selected for university due to start in 2009, will not be allowed to attend university.

Health facilities seem to be minimal and few patients have referred to the Chettikulam Hospital with help of military.

When I was in Chettikulam, I asked whether I could visit Menik Farm and meet some of these people, but was told that no one will be allowed to visit without permission from military and the Government Agent. I head that in the initial days, even UN and the National Human Rights Commission had been denied access to people in the camp. I learnt later that that only few groups like UNHCR, few international NGOs and religious leaders have been allowed to visit.

I have often visited under people detained on suspicion (and even convicted criminals) including under emergency regulations and prevention of terrorism act, without prior permission, by just going at the designated visiting hours and producing my identity.

If Menik Farm is indeed a “camp” and not a “detention centre” it’s difficult to understand why visitors are restricted and need prior permission from the Government and military, which is not required even to visit those detained in police stations and facilities run by the prison department.

Relatives from outside have been allowed to visit and meet their detained relatives.

However, its not clear whether the displaced people were provided opportunities to contact their relatives and friends. I have met anxious relatives of people who had been wondering what has happened to their relatives in Vanni, and it is also not clear how these people could check whether their relatives are amongst those being detained in Menik Farm. This would be particularly important for those in distant areas like Jaffna, Colombo, Batticaloa etc., who will find it difficult to actually visit Chettikulam.

I’m hopeful that if the government doesn’t provide facilities for this, the ICRC will step in.

Relations between military and displaced people
I heard that military officers were polite and helpful to the displaced as well as visiting humanitarian agencies and religious leaders. I had mentioned above that a military officer had personally provided a basin for the infant to be washed. There were no reports of any form of harassment by military.

Several people being detained are reported as not having national identity cards – as young Tamils coming from Vanni areas are often detained and sometimes tortured, this would be a factor that would make them extremely vulnerable and result in a self imposed restriction on freedom of movement.

I also heard that several inmates have been involved with the LTTE and though they have been questioned for long hours by the military, they have not been harassed and still remain in Menik Farm.

While the majority of people are yearning to be able to go out for work, to visit and reunite with friends and relatives, few seem to prefer to stay back as they fear physical harm if they venture outside.

Although no security related incidences have been reported upto now, people have expressed fears about arrests, disappearances and attacks by paramilitary groups.

Role of military, civilian authorities and international community
I remember sometime back announcements in media that government will allow civil authorities and international agencies such as the UN and ICRC to be present at screening and registration of displaced people who will come from Vanni to government controlled areas. This has certainly not happened, and from what I heard, civil authorities and international agencies had no access to these people when they arrived at the Omanthai checkpoint.

The civilian nature of a displaced is being violated by heavy military presence, both in and outside. Although the role of military in providing security is undisputed, the need for the presence of military inside the camp is not clear.

Local and international laws
It is not clear to the displaced people being detained, or to me and several lawyers and others I asked, what are the national laws based on which these displaced people are being detained.

As far as I could see, procedures to be followed for arrest and detention, under normal laws, emergency laws or under the prevention of terrorism act, or even the Presidential Guidelines on arrest and detention, are not being followed.

This confinement also seems to clearly violate basic international law, particularly the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.

Amongst the principles violated are

  • Displaced persons shall not be interned in or confined to a camp. If in exceptional circumstances such internment or confinement is absolutely necessary, it shall not last longer than required by the circumstances. (Principle 12)
  • Every internally displaced person has the right to liberty of movement and freedom to choose his or her residence (Principle 14.1)
  • Internally displaced persons have the right to move freely in and out of camps or other settlements (Principle 14.2)
  • Internally displaced persons, family members who wish to remain together shall be allowed to do so (Principle 17.2)
  • Internally displaced persons should have opportunities for employment and to participate in economic activities; (Principle 22, 1b)

When will they be free?
Playing Lions and Tigers by Rohini Hensmen remains one of favourite books for its tragic but real life portrayal of civilians caught between ruthless armed groups such as the JVP and the LTTE and the equally ruthless governments we have had since 1948.

Sadly, this drama of Lions and Tigers continues upto now and people fleeing the tiger held Vanni continue to be victims of their war games and propaganda.

I had written previously about my encounters with people who had fled Vanni and are now detained in Kallimoddai and Sirukkandal camps in Mannar district since March 2008. Many of these had undertaken dangerous and difficult journeys through jungles and sea, spending their life long savings. The Inter Agency Standing Committee (IASC) reports have indicated that more than 800 people are presently confined in these two camps, with severe restrictions on their movements.

Now, it is appears that people fleeing the Vanni through Omanthai and also to Jaffna – whether out of desperation or in response to the government’s invitation – are facing the same predicament of being confined to camps against their will.

When can they live in dignity and freedom, free from the rhetoric of lions and tigers rhetoric of national security and liberation?