Ilankai Tamil Sangam

24th Year on the Web

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

I Do Not Seek Protection to Live Here

But if I die, my death would be registered: human rights

by Deshapremi Ranasinghe, Northeastern Herald, March, 2007

From November last year, men - mostly in their 20s and 30s - have been arriving at the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission office in Jaffna asking for protection. The Human Rights Commission, for want of any other protection mechanism, has been promptly throwing them into prison...

Jaffna town – a so-called ‘cleared’ area – which has seen no positional military combat in the last year is no better. Life is cheap. According to statistics from the Human Rights Commission office in Colombo, from January 2006 to January 2007, 636 people have been reported missing (abducted) – on the average of 53 people per month...

These ‘surrendees’ are living examples of how the state has failed to protect IDPs in welfare centres from arbitrary arrest and detention [guaranteed under ICCPR Article 9 (1)].

The recent upsurge in violence in the country has seen an increase in the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs). While little has been written about the conditions and the hardships undergone by the IDPs in welfare camps and with host families, even less has been written about a unique type of IDP in Jaffna.

Jaffna has a special type of IDP who are termed ”surrendees” officially. Of course, this nomenclature is misleading. This group of 75 people has not been fighting in the ethnic conflict and given themselves up. They are civilians looking for protection. From November last year, men - mostly in their 20s and 30s - have been arriving at the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission office in Jaffna asking for protection. The Human Rights Commission, for want of any other protection mechanism, has been promptly throwing them into prison.

While a few of these men have been arriving from Allaipiddy and the other islands which have seen active fighting, many of them are from Jaffna town itself. Twenty-year-old Nagulendran (name changed) from Allaipiddy came to Jaffna town in August last year and stayed at the St. Patrick’s College welfare centre. However, as the Sri Lanka Army forced the welfare centre to shut down, he had only two choices: go back to Allaipiddy or go to prison for protection. “Either I will be arrested by the navy in Allaipiddy or by the paramilitaries in Jaffna town and then I will be sent to a prison in the South and tortured. It is better to live in the Jaffna prison,” he said. He also said as an able-bodied unmarried man, the LTTE would also want to recruit him if he went to the ‘uncleared’ areas.

Jaffna town – a so-called ‘cleared’ area – which has seen no positional military combat in the last year is no better. Life is cheap. According to statistics from the Human Rights Commission office in Colombo, from January 2006 to January 2007, 636 people have been reported missing (abducted) – on the average of 53 people per month. As of today, 450 of these cases remained unsolved. In the space of five months (October 2006 to January 2007), there have been 171 cases of threat reported to the Human Rights Commission. These statistics are an indicator of the prevailing security situation in Jaffna, or as one government official put it, “there is no security situation in Jaffna, it is a situation of insecurity.”

In this background, let us examine the status of these ‘surrendees’ and the state’s responsibility toward them. In reality, they are internally displaced persons (IDPs). IDPs have been defined as “persons or groups of persons who have been forced to flee or leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognised state border,” (Introduction of Guiding Principal for the Internally Displaced).

These 75 people have been forced to leave their homes and places of habitual residence as the result of the effects of armed conflict and in order to avoid situations of generalised violence and violations of human rights (arbitary arrest and torture). They, therefore, come under the IDP category. The question in the mind of many is, if these IDPs want to be considered IDPs, why do they not go to one of the 46 welfare centres that dot the landscape of Jaffna? “We are not safe in the welfare camps. We can be arrested at any time and then we are also chased out of the camps when the army wants us to leave,” said Srinivasan (19). Several camps in and around Jaffna town, such as the camps at St. Mary’s Cathedral, St Patrick’s and St. Charles’ colleges, were closed twice at the command of the SLA and the church authorities.

These ‘surrendees’ are living examples of how the state has failed to protect IDPs in welfare centres from arbitrary arrest and detention [guaranteed under ICCPR Article 9 (1)]. That is why these 75 persons have come to the HRC for protection instead of going to the welfare camps. The Guiding Principals specify that protection is the responsibility of the state and does not mean confinement or internment (according the Guiding Principals) unless in exceptional circumstances. “Keeping them in confinement in this manner is the only way we can protect them, so it is considered exceptional circumstances and we are within the law,” defended an HRC official in Colombo. The ‘surrendees’ also do not complain against their confinement as they feel if no one can go out, no one can get in to abduct them either.

What is most troubling, however, is that 46 of these 75 people are classified as “remanded” in official documentation. Therefore, even though at the moment the ‘surrendees’ feel safe that they are confined, this official documentation classifying them as remand prisoners, instead of civilians seeking protection, bodes ill for the future. When the situation hopefully improves, would these people be allowed to return at will and how will the classification on official documents of them as “remand prisoners” affect them? No official could answer this question. If the classification of “remand prisoners” stays with the persons seeking protection, then it will affect their ability to find jobs or a passport because officially they will have a prison record.

The entire process of registration of these ‘surendees’ is bizarre. In total there are 75 persons that have sought protection – 67 men and eight women. As mentioned 46 men are classified as remand prisoners, 15 others are still in the Jaffna police station because of the lack of space in Jaffna prison. The remaining six men are registered as “surrendees,” but not classified as remand prisoners or any other prisoners.

There are also eight women – wives and daughters (over the age of 15) – of the men who have sought protection who are residing in the prison itself. However, these women have not been registered with the HRC as “surendees;” instead they have only been classified as “female remand prisoners.” These female ‘surendees’ have only their husbands or fathers to vouch for their being people seeking protection and not prisoners. If at any time the husbands or fathers die or decide to abandon their families, these women will have no proof to indicate that they are not remand prisoners. With these 75 ‘surrendees’ are two children (under the age of 15) as well who are housed at the prison. They are not registered at all.

This brings us to the conditions that these ‘surendees’ have to live in. Sixty ‘surendees’(51 men and eight women) together with two children live in the Jaffna prison along with 151 other prisoners who have been convicted or remanded for various crimes. There are ten rooms for the male prisoners, who number 203 in total (surrendees and other prisoners). There is a separate room for the female prisoners. There are eight toilets for the men and one toilet for the women. Which means: there are approximately 20 people in one room and 25 people per bathroom for the males. All these arrangements are below the SPHERE humanitarian standards of 3.5 sq. m. per person and the minimum of 20 people for one toilet. The situation in the Jaffna police station is worse, where there is only one room and one toilet for the ‘surrendees’ and others who have been detained.

The trauma these ‘surrendees’ have to undergo as they are housed with other prisoners is not even taken into account. Keeping these ‘surrendees’ idle for long periods of time in the company of convicted criminals would have a terrible effect on their psychological and social status. There are 15 male ‘surrendees’ who are under the age of 20, the regular school-going age of children in Sri Lanka. They, together with the girls and the two children who reside in the prison, are confined and have missed school since they sought protection. The future of these children is compromised because they sought the protection of the state. Therefore, even if the HRC can claim that this as exceptional situation where confinement is the only way to protect these civilians, the state has violated and continues to violate the right to education, the right to an adequate standard of living, and the right to family (as men and women are separated in the prison and not allowed a semblance of a family life) of these ‘surendees.’

The fact that the state has failed in its responsibility to protect its citizens and considers itself still a source of law, was exemplified by the statement of one of the older ‘surrendees.’ V. Nagulendran said, “I did not seek protection to live here, I sought protection so if I die, my death would be registered.”