Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Civilians in the Way of Conflict

Displaced people in Sri Lanka

by Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, Geneva, September 26, 2007

[T]he number of conflict-induced internally displaced people (IDPs) in the country is estimated still to be around 460,000...

[G]iven the climate of distrust between the current government and the minorities of Sri Lanka, it may be perceived that the return programme purposefully discriminates against minority populations. Although in some areas the government of Sri Lanka has shown greater seriousness in respecting the rights of the displaced, it still needs to take more concrete actions to demonstrate convincingly that it intends to respect the rights of all displaced persons, whether they belong to a minority or not.

[This report does not specifically mention that the overwhelming majority of those displaced are from one particular ethnic/linguistic group. Please write to the IDMC to clarify. Ed. Comm.]

Executive summary

Since mid-2006, a dramatic escalation in the civil war in Sri Lanka between government forces and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has resulted in over 4,000 deaths and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people. The latest phase of the 24-year conflict has also prolonged the misery of large numbers of civilians already displaced by the conflict between 1983 and 2002, and by the December 2004 tsunami.

At the end of 2006, at least 520,000 people in Sri Lanka were victims of conflict-induced displacement in a country of 20 million, making up one of the largest displacement crises in Asia in absolute terms and particularly in terms of the proportion of the population displaced. [If the proportion is considered in relation to the Tamil population of 3.5 million, it is even more shocking. Ed. Comm.] Upwards of 300,000 people were displaced in the offensive from 2006 onwards, with Tamil and Muslim minorities in the districts of Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Jaffna the most affected. Despite a major return programme initiated by the government in Batticaloa and Trincomalee in recent months, the number of conflict-induced internally displaced people (IDPs) in the country is estimated still to be around 460,000.

During the renewed offensive, both the government forces and the LTTE have been accused of deliberately targeting civilians and committing or permitting grave violations of international humanitarian law. The Karuna militia group, which broke away from the LTTE in 2004 and is now aligned with government forces against the LTTE, has also been accused of widespread abuses in eastern Sri Lanka.

In many instances in 2006 and 2007, violations by both parties of a 2002 ceasefire agreement between the government and the LTTE have become particularly brutal, involving the use of civilians as human shields, attacks on places of worship and refuge, retaliatory killings, abductions and disappearances, targeted assassinations, and widespread displacement.

Many civilians have fled their homes to escape indiscriminate bombardments, others have left after receiving warnings of imminent attacks from parties to the conflict, and some have been forced to leave after losing their livelihoods. Not all civilians have been able to escape the battlefields. In a number of incidents, people have been left stranded in extremely dangerous situations or facing severe shortages of critical supplies, due to ongoing restrictions placed on their movement by the government and the LTTE. It is the Tamil citizens of Sri Lanka who face most restrictions from both warring sides.

The unexpectedly large number of people displaced has created many humanitarian challenges and protection problems at the IDP camps and welfare centres. Nevertheless, many IDPs have not wanted to go back to their homes unless the insecurity that compelled them to leave is fully resolved.

The protection standards outlined in the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement have been disregarded by each of the parties to the conflict. Forced returns of IDPs, spearheaded to a large extent by the army, have been a major cause for concern. In the early stages of the return drive launched by the government in March 2007, IDPs reported facing coercion to go back, either in the form of physical force, or through threats to have food supplies cut off and the provision of security denied. Humanitarian and human rights agencies were frequently denied access to monitor the return processes. Reports of forced returns have become less frequent in more recent IDP return movements, but the process remains heavily militarised and agencies are still being kept away from areas of return.

Many of the IDPs who have returned home to eastern and north-eastern areas during the last year, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, have experienced difficulties due to the general security situation, and continue to face the risks of death, injury, loss of shelter and livelihoods and conscription into armed groups. IDPs who have returned to insecure areas cannot be considered to have found a durable solution to their displacement.

The plight of more than 60,000 Muslim IDPs living in Sri Lanka’s western Puttalam district is often overlooked; after being displaced for 17 years the community is experiencing breakdowns of traditional family structures and the potential for radicalisation. A recently approved World Bank project is offering some hope to the IDPs as it will enable some of them to have houses in Puttalam, and regain the basis of a normal life.

Government responses to the various displacement situations, and the pressure applied on some groups to return prematurely, may stem from a disinclination to deal with another large IDP population in a country which already harboured hundreds of thousands of displaced people. However, given the climate of distrust between the current government and the minorities of Sri Lanka, it may be perceived that the return programme purposefully discriminates against minority populations. Although in some areas the government of Sri Lanka has shown greater seriousness in respecting the rights of the displaced, it still needs to take more concrete actions to demonstrate convincingly that it intends to respect the rights of all displaced persons, whether they belong to a minority or not.

The legitimacy of the government’s response in recent months to IDPs’ needs has been coloured by accusations that a number of national institutions with mandates to protect people have lost their independence under the current administration. Meanwhile, access to vulnerable groups and the safety of aid workers continue to cause concern to the humanitarian community in the country.

During 2007, the army has achieved significant victories in the east and north-east, and in July the government announced it had taken control over the entire eastern province from the LTTE. However, few analysts believe that this victory will increase peace prospects or end the massive humanitarian and human rights crisis that has engulfed Sri Lanka, and caused the forced displacement of so many civilians.
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