Helping the displaced


(April 26, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) With government troops entering the final stages of the battle to oust the LTTE from their last, remaining areas in the north, attention is now swiftly shifting to the massive humanitarian crisis that has evolved as thousands of civilians flow into government-controlled areas.

With that comes the process of rehabilitation and reconstruction of the war-devastated north, an area where the private sector needs to lend a hand to government efforts to restore stability and confidence. The key to winning the hearts and minds of a people torn between two forces (LTTE and the military) is in ensuring they are returned to their homes as fast as humanely possible and all facilities provided to resume normalcy in terms of employment, vocation, education to the children, health and (also importantly) recovery from the psychological trauma they have faced in recent months.

It is an exercise no government alone can do and requires the support of all, particularly the private sector as they have consistently shown in times of recent situations like the Tsunami tragedy and the post-peace process (2002-2005) work in rebuilding the north and the east.

From all available reports, emergency supplies are moving into IDP camps in the Wanni through government channels but there is a need for more to be done and this is where the private sector can help. On the other hand, there are calls for a civil society-initiated leadership to take charge and work with the government to ensure the civilians who are pouring into makeshift camps have all their needs met, quickly and efficiently. These people – who are the poorest from the poor - need care and attention and there shouldn’t be a shortage of this.

Respected leaders of society from all strata of society, without any rancour, discrimination or bitterness, need to take the lead in coordinating with the government a structured response to the humanitarian needs of these suffering people, many of whom have left their belongings and few valuables (some hidden in the ground) behind to escape the crossfire or being used as a human shield by the Tigers.

The government has appealed for international support in the humanitarian crisis while the UN has also appealed to the LTTE to lay down arms and allow the civilians to leave the no-fire zone without any restrictions. The IDP (Internally Displaced People) camps have been run by the military until recently where the Ministry of Disaster Management also stepped in to help in the management. Many concerns have been raised about the management of these camps and why the refugees, even older people, are not allowed to leave. The government has responded to these concerns and said that screening of the IDPs to ascertain whether there are hardcore LTTE cadres is also essential, to ensure they don’t get back to the civilian population outside and resume their bloody campaign.

From the private sector, the Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FCCISL) this week along with regional chambers praised the rescue operations by government forces in the north and also appealed to the international community to help in social and economic reintegration of these ciivilians.
In a statement, the FCCISL, discussing the next steps, said there is a need for continuous shelter and food supplies, essential medical care, trauma counselling and economic reintegration.

“Though this process may need to follow a particular order, it will be useful to study and establish the identities of those who have means and as well as capacity to venture on their own immediately with least support, and help them to begin the new lease of life. The others could be divided into need based categories and attended accordingly,” the statement said. The National Chamber of Exporters also welcomed the rescue mission.

The tourism industry also stepped in this week with an organized supply of needs to IDPS which was coordinated by the Tourism Ministry. Other companies are also coming into the picture with various forms of support. These efforts are commendable but much more is needed on the lines of how the private sector stepped in during the post-Ceasefire Agreement process of rebuilding and reconstruction some years back and the post-Tsunami response.

The opposition United National Party has also urged the government to allow an all-party group of representatives to visit camps for the displaced to see what the shortcomings are and address them, with government support. While we commend the call, we would also urge that such efforts are considered in the humanitarian context and not to score political points.

There are many issues on IDPs… however, it’s not an easy task for the military and government authorities to handle overnight and provide all the comforts possible. In this context, it is also incumbent on the government to allow free access to humanitarian and civil society groups to these camps, jointly work out an assessment of the situation and formulate a game-plan that would ensure the IDPs are comfortable and all their needs taken care of.

On both sides – government and opposition -, the humanitarian effort should be seen as one that requires the support of all as a national initiative. The chambers and the private sector, working in tandem, can provide a coordinated response to the needs of these people. It has been done before and it can be done again. The call for corporate social responsibility is now. A desperate community needs your help!

-Sri Lanka Guardian