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IDP issue a time bomb in the hands of the Government

By Saybhan Samat

(August 26, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) With the conclusion of the dreaded 30 years war, the focus on internal displaced persons (IDP) is now top priority, causing immense anxiety to the Government in particular and to the public in general. It seems it will be a long time before the problems goes away and there are continuing banner headlines in the media pointing to the short – comings in the IDP camps. A multitude of vexed questions are being directed at the authorities running these camps.

While the Government paints a sunshine picture of conditions in the IDP camps, certain Western backed INGOs, NGOs, human rights organizations and independent observes report on the unsatisfactory conditions in these camps even declaring that there is a violation of human-rights and International Humanitarian law like the violation of right of freedom of movement, communication, privacy, unjustified detention, disappearances, non-transparency in compiling and maintaining records of IDPs and those taken away under arrest for questioning. In addition the right to health, adequate water, food, medicine and sanitation are too not satisfactory.

The situation is critical as these accusations of violation of fundamental and human rights of the displaced persons are given wide-spread international publicity mostly in the Western mass-media brining the Government into disrepute. The Government is making a concerted effort to defend itself of all accusations of mismanagement and violations of human- rights in the IDP camps, even having invited the UN Secretary- General Ban-Ki-Moon to visit the IDP camp in Vavuniya. Besides Ban-Ki-Moon, other representatives of the World Health Organization, the United Nations, India, Japan and Britain have also visited these camps. All of them pledged financial aid to alleviate the conditions in the camps.

Internal displacement has become a characteristic feature of the post cold war world and an increasingly common occurrence that, because of its global scope and magnitude, is of concern to us all. In a growing number of countries large numbers of people are uprooted and on the move, women and children most prominent among them, displaced within the borders of their own nations as a direct result of armed conflict, internal strife or systematic violation of human-rights.

In 1982 there were an estimate 1.2 million internally displaced persons or IDPs in 11 countries, two decades later, as a result of armed conflict, there are as 25 million IDPs in some 40 nation states.

Dependent upon state government officials and other authorities for protection and assistance, internally displaced persons have been described as the single largest at risk population in the world. In Sri Lanka as elsewhere, the precarious existence of the vulnerable group is inextricably linked to the refugee issue. IDPs who flee the country became refugees and refugees who return home are sometimes again displaced. Often destitute and marginalized, IDPs are likely to have their fundamental right and freedoms compromised, their economic and political opportunities denied. It is not only the displaced who are adversely affected, however; the communities they leave behind, as well as those in which they seek refuge, are often disrupted as well.

Since IDPs are the concern of the international community, the United Nations has taken significant steps to enhance effective and timely response to the needs of the internally displaced persons. The Inter Agency Standing Committee (IASC) has been entrusted with the

responsibility to act as Focal Point within the UN system for issues relating to the internally displaced. This arrangement has enhanced the capacity of the United Nations as a whole to respond to situations of internally displaced persons as well as to promoting strong co-ordination and a clear division of institutional responsibilities and adequate support to operational agencies.

The UN Secretary – General’s, special Representative on IDPs has issued the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. These principles are based upon existing international humanitarian law and human – rights instruments, are to serve as an international standard to guide governments as well as international humanitarian and development agencies in providing assistance and protection to IDPs.

Since 1948, there have been IDPs related universal norms, standard laws, regulations, circulars and case studies of IDP related judgments. The existence of these rules is because of the concern of the international community to see that the IDPs are protected and cared for and subsequently re-settled in locations which guarantee their security and well being.

It will be in context to mention that there are several provisions, in the declaration, conventions, statues and protocols of the United Nations, national Human –rights commissions and in the domestic legal system to protect and ensure the welfare and well – being of the internally displaced persons.

Despite these safeguards there have been numerous violations of human rights in IDP camps, wherever there are such camps. However, some efforts have been made to correct such violations because of the legal framework of the laws that have been enacted. The United Nations organizations, the NGOs, INGOs the Human –Rights bodies and other concerned independent people have in no small measure contributed to alleviate the affected internally displaced persons.

Currently in Sri Lanka, there has been several reported violations of international conventions, declarations, and human-rights in the IDP camps in the northern province. On the 6th of August the Supreme Court in fact granted leave to proceed with a fundamental rights petition filed on behalf of members of one family detained in the IDP camp in Vavuniya. The bench comprising Justices N.G. Amarathunga and Chandra Ekanayake granted leave for the alleged infringement of their fundamental right equality and equal protection of the law as well as their right to freedom of movement and choosing their residence in Sri Lanka. The matter was listed for hearing for November 12th.

Most of the internally displaced Sri Lankans are now based and cared for by the government in transitional relief camps located in five demarcated zones in the 1500 acre Menik Farm in the outskirts of Vavuniya in the mainland north of the island. International concern has been expressed over the present condition and the future of these Tamil civilians, who include a large number of women, children and senior citizens.

Some restriction in movement and relocation is on account of the government’s responsibility for the security of the IDPs as de-mining on the heavily mined Wanni has not been completed and the United Nations needed to certify the de-mining of the Wanni before the IDP be permitted to move to their villages and homes. In addition, several L.T.T.E cadres have been discovered in the IDP camps posing as civilians.

However there are allegations that IDPs are not permitted to move from one house to another in the same camp thus restricting fundamental freedom of movement which violates international humanitarian law.

There are about 280,000 IDPs interned in camps and hospitals in the Wanni district. These citizens are war victims and not war criminals and they are entitled to all human and fundamental rights according to international humanitarian law. These IDPs have been treated as suspected war criminals and denied some of their fundamental human-rights like freedom of communication, freedom of association, freedom of equality before the law, and the right to get back into their homesteads.

There is also an urgent need for transparency in compiling IDPs and those taken away under arrest for questioning. Why is it that those who have already been screened and against whom there are no charges continue in detention? In addition there are also reliable numerous reports on disappearances and other human-rights violations in the camps.

Another critical report said “around 280,000 of the civilians who have suffered so much already have been kept prisoners behind barbed wires in camps where condition in many cases is abysmal. It is clear that the government is not able to provide for them adequately, yet with those with relations outside who would be willingly look after them willingly are being denied their right to join their families. This is a denial of fundamental right to freedom of movement is especially cruel for families which have been split up and are therefore denied from re-uniting.”

The Inter Agency Standing Committee (I.A.S.C) a United Nations body had already recommended several steps on behalf of the IDP in a memorandum titled “Conflict Related Internal Displacement” in Sri Lanka in April 2006- April 2007.

It was a nine point recommendation of which the first two are very relevant now in 2009 – they are(I) comply with the obligation under international law, in particular relating to freedom of movement, freedom to choose place of residence and voluntary return in safety and dignity. (ii) All administrative measure imposing restrictions upon fundamental rights be subject to judicial review. These recommendations are presently relevant to the on going conditions of freedom of movement, communication, freedom, to choose place of residence and voluntary return in safety and dignity.

Arrangements have been made for the relatives of IDPs living outside the camps to visit them, but only under certain conditions. They are allowed to talk to relatives, but standing behind barbed wire fences violating free freedom of communication, even the time to talk is strictly limited, like in the case of relatives visiting prisoners.

As regards education needs, only 32,800 IDP children out of 90,000 are participating in education activities 113 temporary learning spaces have been created. According to student ratio 452 such spaces are required. Right to health is not a right to be healthy, but it is a right to the enjoyment of other connected facilities and conditions that are necessary for good health. The scope of the right to health can be identified by giving a closer look at two basic components of this right.

Materials related to health care

Matters reached to general living conditions affecting health, such as safe water, food, sanitation and shelter. Hence right to health covers all these conditions, that is why the IDPs consider this principle as paramount to them.

Therefore it is understood that right to health should encompass both the above mentioned components to make it effective and thereby it will facilitate to achieve ones right to life with dignity.

Almost all universal instruments of human – rights have identified and expressed the values of human rights for advancing the health of the people. Article 25 of UDHR- Universal Declaration of Human Rights enumerates that “Everyone has the right to standard of living adequate for the health of himself and of his family, including food, clothing housing and medical care and necessary social services.”

According to Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) the states parties recognize the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. Under this covenant states parties should take steps to achieve the full realization of this right by provision for the reduction of still-birth-rate and infant mortality and for the healthy development of the child; the improvement of all aspects of environmental and industrial hygiene; the prevention treatment and control of epidemic, endemic, occupational and other diseases and the creation of conditions which would assure to all, medical services and medical attention in the event of sickness.

The international and local laws and standards on right to health are equally relevant to IDPs. Therefore an involuntary question will be raised for health concerns of IDPs. The economy, social and security status after the displacement automatically make them vulnerable to health hazards. This is to say that soon after the displacement, most often they have to live in community centers where the general living conditions such as essential foods, water, shelter and sanitation are very much poor and therefore, the risk of health out breaks are higher in those places.

The right to movement communication, education, speech etc. is meaningless without the right to health. If the right to physical and mental health is inadequate or does not exist there in fact is no right to anything. Only if the IDPs are healthy that they can demand and exercise any other rights that they are entitled to.

Most of those in the IDPs more than any other inadequacy worry about their physical and mental health. The right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health has been recognized by many universal human –rights instruments and this comprises the right to adequate standard of living. There are avenues in Sri Lankan fundamental rights field too, to identify the Right to Health as a right, though it is not directly stipulated in the Constitution as a right. In addition, the statues like Penal Code, Food Act and Provincial statues on health service have specifically laid down provisions to maintain and preserve public health. IDPs too are entitled to the Constitutional and Statutory rights with no distinctions to their status as IDPs. The right to health is dependent on several other factors viz. essential food, water, shelter and sanitation.


As regards the nutritional status of food, the available dry ration package is considered as not sufficient, especially to those depending only on it. In addition irregularities in issuing dry rations and problems regarding low quality dry ration given to IDPs is also reported. In such a backdrop, the nutritional status of extremely vulnerable groups such as pregnant and lactating mothers, infants and children have gone down and the security problems and task of livelihood opportunities have enlarged their unfortunate plight.


Regarding the supply of water almost all IDPs experience a shortage of water. The government on a daily basis brings water in bowsers and distributes it, but it is insufficient. Needless to say that a short supply of water is going to affect the hygiene and sanitation in the camps which is bound to lead to some bowel diseases. Whether the water distributed is pure is also not known. In some IDP camps the inmates get only three days supply in a week. Sometimes due the unsuitability of drinking water people buy water from visiting water sellers who station themselves near the camp under the watchful eyes of the security officers. Untreated water can cause kidney disease and death.

Minimum water needs for a person for drinking purpose is 7 liters per day (UNHCR) and according to the Sphere Principles 15 liters of water is required for drinking, cooking and personal hygiene. Maximum number of persons per tap is 250 persons and for a hand pump or dug well it is 400 persons. The maximum distance from any household to the nearest water point is 500 meters. Queuing time at a water source is no more than 15 minutes. Water sources and systems should be maintained such that appropriate quantities of water are available consistently or on a regular basis. All these standards given by the UNCHR and listed by the Sphere Principles are but ideals these do not exist in reality in the camps once again endangering the health of the IDPs.


Regarding displaced persons, sanitation and hygiene should be of utmost importance due to the nature of common usage of such facilities and they are normally much more susceptible to illness and death from diseases, which are related to a large extent to inadequate sanitation, inadequate water suppliers and poor hygiene, excreta disposal and drainage. According to Sphere Principles, minimum latrine facility for persons is one (1) latrine for 20 persons or ideally one (1) per family and minimum distance between shelter and latrines

should be 50m or more. Pit shelter and latrines should be at least 30 meters away from any ground water sources. Once again these are ideals and not many if none implemented in the camps again endangering the right to health.

It is not surprising that encephalitis, meningitis, typhoid, viral infection, chicken – pox, amoebisis and diarrhoea have broken-out in the camps. Since the IDPs live in a community the incidence of viral infections and diarrhoeal diseases would spread rapidly.


According to the UNCHR and Sphere Principles, minimum shelter space for a person is 3.5x2m. Again in the IDPs these standards are not complied in many instances, in some IDPs the floor areas for a family is as low as 15x12 (180 square feet) and this does not allow maintaining privacy and sometimes it facilitates sexual exploitations of women and children by family members. In selecting sites for IDPs the lower point of the site should not be less 3 meters above the estimated level of water table in the rainy season. Hence haphazard selection and construction of IDPs in the Menik Farm after the rains on August 16th resulted in the IDPs languishing in soggy floors while the sanitary facilities were greatly affected raising alarming concerns about the water contamination and hygiene issues. The rain caused temporary toilet pits dug in the camps to overflow, while some pits were completely damaged. The roads turned muddy and impassable affecting the food supply to the IDPs. The rains have caused another health hazard.

Yet another concern of health is the non preparedness to attend to mental problems in the IDP camps. Inheriting a civil conflict for more than 25 years with factors like loss of loved ones, families, wealth and livelihood have caused the majority of the people in the war affected area to be mentally disordered with diseases like post traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety disorder, manic depression and clinical depression. In addition security concerns amplified the number of mentally affected. Only recently have the authorities taken some action, however there is only a couple of psychiatrists working in the camps. The camps need more psychiatrists, psychologists, psychotherapists, counselors and more mental health workers. If the government does not take immediate action, it will be very serious violation of the Right to Health of the IDPs.

The G.M.O.A has reported that there are only 30-40 doctors working in the IDP camps when at least 120 doctors and 2000 nurses are required. As to sanitation out of the estimated 15,000 latrines required only 9215 have been constructed. Water distribution is inconsistent across the camps. The situation has resulted in long queues of people wanting to collect water. Drinking water is insufficient although 3000 cubic meters are distributed to the IDPs.


As the problems in the IDPs are numerous and the suffering and misery growing by the day the Government should explore all avenues to hasten the process of safely relocating and sending the IDPs bench to their homes and villages.

What seems to be delaying the relocation and return is on account of heavy screening. If the delay cannot be overcome, the government must focus on improving the facilities and living conditions within the camps.

Another recommendation to the government is to be aware that prolonged detention of the people will come at the cost of increase alienation of the Tamil people in general and will permit anti government forces to mobilize opposition to the government both at the national and international levels.

Hard line elements in the Tamil diaspora who seek confrontation with the government will be able to mobilize support on the basis of the harsh treatment of the displaced population which would prove to be a threat to national security in the future. The IDP issue is a time bomb in the hands of the government which has to be diffused at any cost.
-Sri Lanka Guardian

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