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SRI LANKA: Gov’t to Resettle Displaced Tamils Ahead of Monsoon

Feizal Samath

COLOMBO, Sep 12 2009 (IPS) - The Sri Lankan government, accused of keeping the refugees who fled fighting between the military and Tamil rebels against their will, is preparing to resettle these minority civilians ahead of next month’s monsoon period, officials from non-government agencies said Friday.

"We have been told that a large number (of Tamil civilians) would be released or returned to their homes by October 15 before the monsoon season," said Jeevan Thiagarajah, executive director of the Colombo-based Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA), an umbrella group of humanitarian agencies who are working in the camps.

More than 250,000 internally displaced people (IDP) have been languishing in IDP camps in the northern town of Vavuinya since fleeing fighting between government troops and rebels from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) group earlier this year.

The military smashed through strong rebel defences and killed the group’s elusive leader Velupillai Prabhakaran in May, ending more than 20 years of conflict and destruction during the rebel campaign to carve out an independent homeland for Sri Lanka ’s 14 percent minority Tamil population in the country’s north-east region.

Some 4.6 percent Tamils of Indian origin brought by the British to work on tea and rubber plantations – where they live to this day – during colonial rule do not support the separatist cause and prefer to maintain their own identity. They still live in these plantations, and currently number around 500,000.

The government has repeatedly denied allegations from human rights groups and western states of forcibly keeping refugees in the camps for more than four months since the war ended, saying mines – laid by the LTTE – have to be cleared and damaged housing restored before the refugees can return to their homes. The government also said there are hundreds of suspected LTTE cadres in the camps, and they have to be filtered out before allowing camp residents to be freed.

On Thursday, the Ministry of Resettlement and Disaster Relief Services announced that camp residents would be released to relatives who can provide shelter for these people. The Ministry, which is the main government agency involved in caring for the displaced, said in a public statement that all IDP-related details should be provided to the District Secretary, the highest government official in a region, in the northeast districts where the displaced come from, for a quick release of the affected civilians.

The government had previously allowed those over 60 years old, numbering a few hundreds, to leave the camps and stay in the homes of their relatives.

Several NGOs and other organisations, including civic and religious groups, have been helping out at the camps where facilities are poor, particularly where sanitation, accommodation and water needs are concerned. Journalists have been barred from visiting the camps.

"I cried when I walked into a camp which houses more than 200,000 people," said an elderly social worker, who returned to Colombo from one such camp visit, on Wednesday.

While conceding that the government has a tough chore in making the refugees as comfortable as possible, the female worker – who declined to be named – told IPS that she was "saddened" by the hardships faced by the women and children. "We took clothes and milk powder, and they kept on pleading with us to ask the authorities to release them," she said.

"When we told them that their former homes have mines which have to be removed, they said they are prepared to go anywhere where they can be free," she added.

Among the problems faced by the women are the lack of privacy in bathing areas outside tents (in which the families live) and areas to dispose of sanitary towels.

"Because water is a problem – as it has to be brought from long distances – the women bathe every four days, and this is an issue during their monthly periods," she said.

On Wednesday, Sri Lankan Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremasinghe accused the government of violating the law and the country’s Constitution by holding the displaced people against their will.

Speaking in Parliament, Wickremasinghe, whose United National Party, the main opposition party controlled by majority Sinhalese, has repeatedly urged the government to release the refugees as early as possible, said no law in the country allows the government to detain people in camps without a detention order.

"It is clear that these citizens are not being held in government camps under any law. This is illegal. We have a government that is acting outside the law and violating the Constitution," he told Parliament. "We do not accept the argument that the government is acting in the interest of displaced people." He added that all the displaced people must be free to leave if they have alternate accommodations.

Tamil National Alliance leader in Parliament, Rajavarothiam Sampanthan, had told the legislature that the government did not have the resources to resettle the IDPs expeditiously, as only 8.5 percent of them had been resettled after three months since the fighting ended in May.

"The government made a commitment (earlier this year) to India, the United Nations and the international community that the resettlement of IDPs would be 80 percent complete within 180 days (from May)," said Sampanthan, whose party represents the minority Tamils.

In Jaffna, the capital of the northern province of Sri Lanka, relatives of the displaced persons were waiting patiently for their return. "One of my relatives left for Vavuniya on Monday after learning that the displaced were being released to their relatives," said a journalist by telephone from this northern town.

According to government figures, close to 50,000 refugees have relatives in Jaffna. CHA’s Thiagarajah said there are 2,880 pregnant mothers, 14,000 differently-abled persons and 600 orphans whom the government said would be released or relocated quickly.

The National Peace Council, which has been working on a peaceful resolution of the ethnic conflict which has killed thousands of people since the war broke out in 1983, welcomed the government decision to release the displaced civilians to relatives willing to house them.

But as a precondition to release, said the Council, those wishing to leave the camps will go through a rigorous process of screening and identification, which it urged should be conducted speedily and transparently.

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