IDPs and Refugees, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War, Vavuniya

The End of Displacement in Sri Lanka?

In June 2010 the Minister for Resettlement, Milroy Fernando stated that there were 60,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Sri Lanka and that the Government would resettle them by August 2010. With some 30,000 IDPs remaining in Menik Farm at the end of July it would not be impossible for the Government to close the camp down and meet this self-imposed deadline.

With the movement of these IDPs it would not be too unexpected if the Government was to announce that there are no more IDPs in Sri Lanka. It would also not come as too big a surprise if the Government would phase out the Resettlement Ministry, as a part of the expected cabinet re-shuffle when the President assumes his second term in November 2010. As with the closure of the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, following the April Parliamentary Election, the Government would be sending a clear signal that it no longer sees this issue as a significant problem requiring a separate portfolio and that whatever outstanding problems could be handled by other line ministries and departments. In essence, the Government will be declaring the end of the displacement problem that has been a direct consequence of the thirty year war, with the last three years of the war alone displacing over half a million people.

As Sri Lankans we should receive this news with a sense of relief that this large scale problem of displacement has been addressed and that communities whose lives were ruptured are able to return home and rebuild their lives. There are, however growing concerns as to the implications of the problem being declared “complete.” In the rush to end displacement and declare that there are zero IDPs in Sri Lanka there is the danger that the true scale and nature of displacement, and the return as it exists on the ground is being ignored. As this article will argue, there is real need to take a more thorough look at the problem. With a new Minister in charge who is also well aware of the different IDP population, this is the moment to take stock and to develop a fresh approach.

Old and Forgotten
There are a whole series of issues relating to the displacement problem which need to be highlighted but this article will focus on only one aspect of this problem – that of the Old IDPs. At the outset it needs to be noted that when the Government announced that there were only 60,000 IDPs, serious questions arise as to what is the Government’s definition of an IDP and the reliability of the statistics being used by the Government. Even if one is to accept, for sake of argument, that this figure refers purely to the New IDPs i.e. those displaced in and from the Vanni from April 2008 onwards, the figure does not accurately reflect the ground situation. While the Government in Colombo maintains that of the original 260,000 who were in camps, the vast majority have been ‘returned,’ it appears that at least 30,000 IDPs are staying with host families (friends and relations) mainly in the North as a temporary measure. In effect the question that arises is – has this displaced population been effectively de-recognised without a lasting solution being found for them?

Furthermore, in areas such as Jaffna it seems that many New IDPs were ‘returned’ to their original addresses but given their multiple displacements, many of these people may actually prefer to return to their homes in the Vanni where they may have been living for the past few years and where they may even own land. The main reason many of these families and individuals opted to move in with host families in the run up to the August 2009 Jaffna Municipal Elections and the January 2010 Presidential Election may have been due to their eagerness to leave the closed displacement camps. As to what will happen to this population once the rations and resettlement allowance runs out, especially for those who do own land and cannot find employment in Jaffna is by no means clear. There are also ‘returnees’ who have been unable to return to their original properties or in some cases even their village and so they are currently in transit sites, i.e. still in displacement, either because the land is currently occupied by the military or due to mines. On August 2nd TNA MP Suresh Premachandran stated to the media that some 3,000 persons have been moved back to the Vanni but are prevented from returning to their home and that the military is planning to acquire land and build cantonments.

The official statistics for IDPs being cited by the Government also completely blind sides the issue of the Old IDPs. This again raises questions as to whether the Government officially recognises Old IDPs as IDPs and whether the Government is sincerely committed to addressing existing challenges, as opposed to winning public relations battles at both the international and domestic level. The lack of reference to Old IDP statistics seems to be part of a larger policy problem, in that this population finds itself excluded from official policy documents and statements.

It is estimated that at the end of the war there were approximately 300,00 Old IDPs which includes Northern Muslims, Tamil IDPs affected by the Jaffna High Security Zones, Sinhala IDPs from the North and border villages, and IDPs from all communities in the East. The figure for Old IDPs is approximate because the Government has not provided official statistics for this population. While there have been a significant number of returns of some old IDPs since the war ended the process has been laboriously slow. In addition, there are other IDP populations such as those displaced by the tsunami. Even though the official position is that the tsunami recovery is over, there are significant numbers of tsunami affected still living in ‘transitional shelters’ which generally have a life time of a year, especially in Eastern Muslim coastal areas such as Marathamunai, Muttur and Kalmunai. Overall, the return of Old IDPs is lagging behind that of the New and there are growing concerns that they will be left behind and forgotten. In order to ensure a more comprehensive and effective response to the displacement issue in Sri Lanka there is a need to focus on the Old IDPs and include them in official policy.

Differential Treatment
It needs to be noted that the New IDPs and returnees face a whole series of challenges and many of them are still in a vulnerable situation, hence there is a clear need to ensure their concerns are immediately addressed with full recognition to their rights as citizens of this country. The argument for recognising Old IDPs cannot and should not be at the cost of the New.

However, it is apparent that there is no uniform process for resettlement of the New and Old IDPs. Whereas in the case of the New, the State and humanitarian agencies assists the IDPs in the shift through providing transport and de-registering them as IDPs and registering them as returnees, most Old IDPs have returned spontaneously, meaning they use their money to transport their belongings and family members, and have to negotiate with the authorities to allow them to return. Generally, the process is for a displaced family to cut the rations they receive in the site of displacement and inform the district authorities, and on resettlement they need to inform the relevant district authorities so that they can get resettlement assistance such as the World Food Program’s 3 month rations, a resettlement allowance of Rs 25,000 funded largely by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and temporary shelter which has been mainly paid for by donors.

The return of Old IDPs is lagging behind that of the New. The roughly 100,000 Northern Muslim population that was expelled by the LTTE from the five districts of the Northern Province have demanded parallel, or alternately slightly delayed, resettlement for Old IDPs. Musali in Southern Mannar was the first area in the Vanni opened for resettlement in April 2009 when they had to wait for weeks to secure permission to return. While the situation improved in the latter half of 2009 in that Northern Muslims could go and negotiate access, in recent weeks however, there have been reports that some Northern Muslims attempting to return to Killinochchi and Mullaitivu have faced problems in either securing assistance or even in some cases approval to resettle. It appears that the Government is focussed on dealing with IDPs at Menik Farm to the point of asserting that all assistance is required for this group of IDPs. Humanitarian agencies in turn insist that they are under strict instructions to provide assistance only to the New IDPs. One group of Northern Muslims who wanted to return to a village in Mullaitivu were advised by one helpful government official that the best solution would be for them to re-register as IDPs in Menik Farm in order to secure permission to return and resettlement assistance! Differential treatment already exists for New and Old IDPs as the former receive rations based on nutritional needs provided by WFP, as opposed to the latter who receive Government rations based on a costing from the mid-1990s of basic goods.

It should also be noted that like in the case of New IDPs ‘returning’ to Jaffna but hoping to resettle in the Vanni where they have homes and lands, there are families of Old IDPs who may opt to relocate to other locations, as opposed to resettle. It should be noted that not all the Northern Muslims will opt to return and may prefer to locally integrate in areas such as Puttalam where the largest proportion of this population were displaced, as would old Tamil IDPs displaced from Jaffna and the Vanni currently living in Vavuniya. Given the population growth of these communities while in displacement, what was one family some twenty years later could be now three separate family units who may make independent choices regarding return or relocation.

In the case of other Old IDP populations, there is currently very limited change in the primary obstacle to their resettlement. For the vast majority of Old IDPs in Jaffna, numbering 65,000 as of July 2010, return is not an option currently open to most of them as their homes are in High Security Zones (HSZs). The HSZs roughly account for 18% of Jaffna’s territory and civilians are not permitted to live in these areas. The HSZs are a key stumbling block for the restoration of normalcy and the rights of the affected population. These IDPs and Jaffna residents in general question why such extensive areas are declared as no-go areas for civilians and why such severe restrictions are required when the LTTE has been defeated. While assurances have been provided by key figures in Government that the HSZs will be rolled back, on the ground the process has been slow, with Gurunagar and the border of Tellipellai being opened up. As quoted in the Daily Mirror on July 15th Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella stated that HSZs in the North would remain, without specifying a time limit and without clarifying whether it would apply to all HSZs, thereby contradicting the position of Minister Douglas Devananda who has stated that the Government will gradually reduce HSZs.

Officially in the East, there are no more IDPs. Yet, some 1,700 families are effectively displaced by the Sampur HSZ, in Eastern Trincomalee which covers 4 GN divisions. It is apparent that the Government has a plan to make this a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) which would include a coal power station which is to be constructed by an Indian Company. There are also smaller populations including 1,000 families from Kanjikudichcharu, Ampara and other displaced people from all three ethnic communities wanting to return to rebuild their lives. Very clearly the statistics, the timeline and the overall plan for resettlement needs to be re-visited and revised.

While clearly the primary onus is with the Government to address this issue of disparity and unequal treatment, through policy, providing adequate assistance and raising international funding, the donors and humanitarian agencies also bear some responsibility in failing to attend to this issue. It is becoming increasingly apparent that there is a huge funding issue, with international donors not able and willing to continue providing funds for all aspects of resettlement. The increasing restrictions imposed by the Government in terms of access for local and international agencies will only make it more difficult for agencies to raise funds and carry out activities. The shortage in funds has resulted in Old IDPs being downgraded in terms of priority for assistance, including in terms of permanent housing. India has announced that it will provide 50,000 shelters but the total number of destroyed or damaged houses in the province from three decades of war is estimated to be at least three times that figure. Most donors, including India, make sympathetic noises at best, regarding the Old IDPs but make no reference to the issue nor do they pledge assistance which will facilitate their return. Hence, if resettlement is “completed” in August 2010 it is unclear how Old IDP resettlement will be supported and whether they will be provided the same assistance package as the New IDPs, which in turn raises questions relating to the principle of equity and equality in terms of the assistance and policy towards the different IDP populations.

Confronting the Problem
There are numerous problems which could result from the marginalisation of the Old IDP issue including tension between Old and New IDPs, mistrust of the authorities, fear and anxiety among Old IDPS, and land conflicts. The delay in resettlement has resulted in a variety of problems. Electoral registration is taking place in the North at the moment but it is unclear if the Northern Muslims in Puttalam and other locations will be included into the list or whether they will be excluded on the grounds that that they are not living in the area at present. SLMC leader Rauf Hakeem stated in the Daily Mirror on August 4th that Muslim families from Nachchikuda, Killinochchi District were unable to reclaim their lands because these areas had been occupied by others, which highlights the serious problems which are emerging on the ground. This problem of secondary occupation could be further complicated by the lack of documentation proving ownership. While these are complicated problems, a mixture of legal, policy and community oriented solutions could ameliorate and address these problems.

These problems are basically the result of the lack of a clear, consistent and comprehensive policy on resettlement for all IDPs. This has to be a policy that is based on constitutionally guaranteed rights and principles of equal of treatment and participation. Ensuring fair and appropriate assistance to the displaced and affected population will also serve as a crucial building block towards achieving reconciliation and a lasting peace in this country. But to find a solution you first need to acknowledge the problem.