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Masses in Flight: The Crisis of Internal Displacement in Sri Lanka

M. Mayilvaganam is Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • May 05, 2009

    The exodus from the conflict zone in Sri Lanka as well as the plight of those still trapped in it have not only become a major focus of international attention, but also raise questions about President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ‘peace through war strategy’. The Sri Lankan government’s case for the final assault on a weakened LTTE irrespective of the “human catastrophe” needs to be challenged. Neither is there a guarantee that life for the affected population will change for the better once they leave government-controlled areas, indicating that the war could drag on indefinitely. Indeed, displacement would only add to their agony and uncertainty rather than contribute to peace and security. Apart from the loss and agony of escaping death from the “safe zone”, the question of return to traditional homes, reclaiming lost land and property, and insecurity about the future contribute to their distress.

    The plight of affected civilians caught in the narrow ‘no fire zone’ is even more pathetic. With government troops on one side and the inhuman LTTE on the other, trapped civilians despair for their survival. Estimates of civilians trapped inside the zone vary between 30,000 and 100,000. It has been reported that nearly 6,500 civilians have lost their lives and 14,000 have been injured since the beginning of this year. And to add to their misery intense shelling has also triggered starvation. As pointed out by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the situation for the trapped is “nothing short of catastrophic”.

    Entrapped victims are trying to find a way out. Their only hope appears to be the international community’s success in stopping the war. An end to shelling and air raids from government controlled areas is essential to ensure safe passage. Thus, the immediate test for the Rajapaksa government lies in how it deals with the issue of trapped civilians even as it pursues its war against the LTTE. The LTTE’s future has become inextricably linked with the fate of these beleaguered civilians.

    Rehabilitation and resettlement of displaced persons after the war would be the next test for the Rajapaksa government. In fact, this is likely to be even more challenging a task than defeating the LTTE. The reality is that the ongoing conflict has displaced a large number of Tamil civilians in Sri Lanka. The situation is so overwhelming that almost everyone in Killinochchi and Mullaitivu has been displaced. Reportedly there are nearly 500,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Sri Lanka now. A majority of them stay in temporary welfare centres or camps, erected hurriedly to house the fleeing civilians from the rebel controlled areas at the borders of the conflict zone. The government has been forced to act to cater for the welfare of these people because of the international outcry.

    While many displaced people would prefer to flee to India, restrictions on movement and the impulse for an early return to their homes and communities are likely to discourage their crossing the Palk Strait. It is not clear whether the Sri Lankan government is equipped to handle the Himalayan task of resettling or relocating the displaced persons in a timely fashion. There are questions about how so many people in temporary welfare camps can be housed adequately till the resettlement or relocation of the displaced are taken up later.

    Despite international scepiticism, the government seems confident that it can provide shelter and basic needs for the displaced. But the displaced are cynical in this regard. A number of reasons contribute for such distrust. Nearly 100,000 people displaced earlier are still lodged in welfare camps in Vavuniya and other places without proper resettlement or relocation. And like in the eastern province, the defence authorities could attempt to reassert their power over the bureaucracy in the northern province in governing the cleared areas. In addition, the establishment of a High Security Zone (HSZ) adds a further disincentive for those wanting to return to their former homes. Mistrust adds to the fear among the displaced civilians about possible highhandedness of the defence establishment. Moreover, the government’s hostility towards non-governmental organizations (NGOs) could prove detrimental in the speedy rehabilitation and resettlement of the displaced. Finally, slow progress in demining the cleared areas could also pose a serious problem in the timely return of the displaced and in reconstruction.

    Thus, sustaining an enduring peace in Sri Lanka not only depends on dislodging the Tigers but also in dealing with the trapped civilians and displaced people. Formulating a balanced policy between security needs and humanitarian concerns would contribute to peace and stability on the island nation.