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Resettlement of displaced population needs extra support

By Jehan Perera

(November 10, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The temple bells were ringing. There was a Hindu religious ritual taking place. This was the village of Velanai, one of the small islands off the Jaffna coast. Internally displaced people (IDPs) from the Vavuniya camp had been sent back there. What we saw was a heart-warming sight. The children of Velanai and the returnee IDP children were together, being fed by the village temple. We witnessed this while on a north south linkage programme over the weekend. The returnees to Velanai were fortunate

These were people who had left the island in the early 1990s, when the Sri Lankan military moved in. They had gone to Jaffna which was under LTTE control and joined the LTTE in their forced the exodus from peninsula in1995. Thereafter, they ended up in the LTTE-controlled Wanni. Fortunately for them they have their relatives to return to on the island of Velanai, and their homes to stay in temporarily. Unfortunately, not all of the 100,000 or more returnees from IDP camps have this possibility of being able to stay with friends or relatives. The government has now announced it has resettled over 100,000 people who were in the welfare centres.

The fate of the 280,000 persons who were displaced during the last stages of the war, and were confined to welfare centres from which they were not permitted to leave has been immensely controversial. Initially the government gave a time frame of 2-3 years for the resettlement of these people. This caused grief and outrage amongst the Tamil community, both in Sri Lanka and outside in the Diaspora.

It led to strong concern being expressed by sections of the international community, including India, and was the subject of much adverse international media reportage. The government gave three reasons why it had to temporarily restrict the freedom of the displaced population. The first was that many LTTE cadre were hiding amongst the civilian population and had to be weeded out in the interests of national security. The danger of hard core Tigers in particular infiltrating out of the area and into the rest of the country was plain on its face.

Even a handful of suicide bombers could cause havoc in terms of their destructive capacities.

This governmental concern was compounded by the continuous discovery of arms caches buried by the LTTE in the areas they once controlled. Any premature return of people to those areas they formerly inhabited could have provided the LTTE cadre with an opportunity to get their hands on those weapons and to rearm and regroup. The fact that several senior LTTE leaders still remain unaccounted for has increased the level of this threat.

The third reason given by the government was that a considerable part of the formerly LTTE-controlled area was filled with landmines which needed to be removed prior to the resettlement of the civilians.

The problem with the government’s position was that the relatively lengthy time frame it gave for the resolution of these problems. A government plan on resettlement that surfaced in the early part of the year, and which suggested a 2-3 year time frame for resettlement, was indeed a very comprehensive one. It included the building up of the infrastructure of the welfare centres (or IDP camps) into small townships, complete with schools, hospitals and playgrounds. But this created an impression that inevitable delays in the implementation of this programme would effectively lead to the incarceration of people in the camps that could extend even up to more than three years.

As a result of these misgivings the government came under severe local and international pressures to speed up the resettlement of the displaced persons. Warning signals The relatively poor performance of the government at local elections in the north earlier in the year would have sent a warning message to the government that its resettlement strategy would erode any possibility of getting Tamil votes at forthcoming national elections.

In addition the government came under tremendous international pressure. There were constant criticisms of the government by international human rights groups and by the international media.

The government’s commitment to upholding international standards in the provision of humanitarian assistance began to be seriously challenged. This gave rise to intensified lobbying against the government by international human rights organizations and by the Tamil diaspora which had serious consequences. One of the consequences of the government’s human rights record has been the likelihood of economic sanctions.

At the present time the government is doing its utmost to save for itself the GSP + tariff concession granted by the European Union and is engaged in a serious lobbying effort on that count. There have been other threats as well which make progress on resettlement a priority issue if the government is to manage its finances. Donor agencies that were supplying most of the food and other resources to maintain the welfare centres threatened to pull out. Instead they promised support only to those people who had been resettled.

It is under these conditions of political and international pressure that the government has apparently decided to expedite the resettlement of the people hitherto confined to the welfare centres. In order to explain its actions, the government has said that most of the screening of the displaced population for LTTE cadres has been completed.

The effort to de-mine the formerly LTTE-held areas has been strengthened with the government purchasing a large number of costly demining machines and training over 2,000 military personnel to do the job. However, this expedited resettlement of displaced persons is not according to the government’s previous plan which envisaged a systematic process.

This was to first develop the physical infrastructure of the war-ravaged areas, including the roads, transport system, wells and irrigation canals, schools, hospitals and community halls. Only after this infrastructure was put in place were the people to be resettled to rebuild their homes and war-shattered lives.

The earlier plan envisaged at least a 2-3 year time horizon for its implementation. Filling Gap But now with only six months since the end of the war, very little has been done by way of developing the infrastructure of some of the areas into which the people are being resettled. In fact, due to the near total destruction of infrastructure in places that were once under LTTE control, the resettlement of people is not in their original places of inhabitation, which no longer exist.

A large proportion of the people who have been taken out of the welfare camps are being relocated to areas in the Jaffna peninsula and to the small islands off it, although they originally came from elsewhere in the north. These new areas are often devoid of basic infrastructure, in which case the Rs 25,000 being allocated to each family, and of which only Rs 5000 will be in the form of cash, will not be enough to secure the necessities of survival. When people who lived on the northern mainland are relocated in the coastal areas, as occurred in some instances, the farming skills that sustained their lives for generations will also become obsolete. Furthermore, schools, hospitals and other crucial facilities may be inaccessible or in a deteriorated state, condemning many to rudimentary lifestyles in an inhospitable environment. The hasty resettlement that is currently taking place also means that some IDPs are being compelled to occupy others’ homes, breeding the potential for future conflict. In these circumstances, there are severe shortcomings in the facilities available to the relocated people.

There are accounts of people being relocated in war-ravaged areas with barely any resources to fend for themselves and of people being stung by snakes dying because there are no roads or vehicles or hospitals in the places they have put into. In this challenging situation, it is incumbent on the government to reconsider its decision to restrict access to humanitarian organizations and NGOs who are best equipped to help the people in the situation they find themselves in. NGOs are most adept at filling in the gaps in the government’s macro-level programmes. The resettlement of the displaced persons is a gap that needs to be filled. Members of the NGO consortium in Jaffna were specially aggrieved in this regard.

They are denied access to those IDPs resettled in Jaffna. They are unable, and rightly so, to understand why they are not allowed to help those resettled in their own areas. The provision of basic humanitarian needs is a primary function of civil society. The government needs to maximize resources and facilitate the efforts of civil society groups to rebuild trust and establish a base of continuous dialogue so that both can work efficiently together to assist the displaced. Showing concern for the needs of the displaced people by providing them with basic requirements for survival and sufficient tools to rebuild their lives will also help develop trust between the government and the Tamil people, which is a crucial component of reconciliation. In addition, the government needs to examine its current priorities, and redistribute funds so that more resources will be available to meet the basic needs of its citizenry.
-Sri Lanka Guardian

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