One of the more contentious issues in Sri Lanka this year has been the plight of hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the north.
More than 280,000 were in closed camps after hostilities between the military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ended, and in recent months senior UN humanitarian and human rights officials have repeatedly voiced strong concern about conditions there.
In an interview with IRIN, Government Agent and District Secretary for Vavuniya PSM Charles - the most senior government official in Vavuniya, where the bulk of the displaced now stay - shared her take on the current return process, conditions inside the camps, and her government’s plans to return thousands to their homes.
More than 100,000 have returned already, she said, a number she hopes will increase in the weeks and months ahead.
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Question: How would you describe conditions inside the camps at the moment?
Answer: People are happy since they know that the resettlement process is being expedited to the best of our ability. The IDP population at present [10 November] at the transitional relief villages is around 135,392 people.
Q: How many IDPs have been resettled so far - with families, in their previous homes, and with others?
A: Around 104,500 to date [10 November]. They are being sent to Jaffna, Mannar, Mullaitivu, Killinochchi and Vavuniya districts in the north and Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Ampara in the east.
We have designated an area in Zone 5 [an area within the Menik Farm IDP camp] which serves as the point where those to be resettled are gathered. Once the formalities are dealt with, we transport them from there to their place of resettlement.
According to the assessment made by UNICEF [the UN Children’s Fund], 65,000 IDPs had to be relocated from the welfare camps before the onset of the monsoons but we have resettled more than half the IDP population housed in the various welfare zones set up in Vavuniya District.
Q: Why are these people being sent to the east?
A: There are many IDPs who are from the east. They came to the north to visit family, relatives, to attend weddings, and some to attend to official work, and some for various other reasons.
They were trapped in the conflict areas when fighting began and could not leave. They wanted to go back to their homes in the east and we have allowed them to go back. In fact some were permanent residents of Vavuniya as well.
|Vavuniya Government Agent PSM Charles|
Q: What are your plans to resettle the rest of the IDPs?
A: Two divisional secretariats - Manthai West and Mannar town in the Mannar District - have been demined. This covers the Giant Tank area as this tank irrigates around 45,000 acres of paddy cultivation. We will be relocating around 5,000 people in these areas. We also hope to send a fair number to Killinochchi, Kanagapuram, Jayanthipuram, Uruthirapuram and Kudhumurippu Grama Niladhari divisions and [the] north part of Vavuniya, some areas in Mullaitivu and Pooneri - all in the north - no sooner the demining is over. I am waiting for the green light. These are the areas where they originally came from.
Q: What about those IDPs who wish to stay with family members in the area?
A: Relatives and friends who wish to accommodate IDPs have to make a written application providing relevant details to the government agent through the `grama niladhari’ [local area officer], and the divisional secretary or government agent. We then process the applications and verify their authenticity. I have approved over 6,500 applications received so far and am waiting for security clearance.
Once clearance is given we hope to send around 6,500 families to stay with their friends and relatives, some in Jaffna and Vavuniya in the north, and Batticaloa in the east. I expect the approval soon.
We have had a few applications to accommodate IDPs from friends and relatives in Colombo as well. We ensure that all the necessary facilities are available for the IDPs prior to permitting them to be resettled. The rest have to remain till the demining is completed.
Q: There have been reports that basic facilities inside the camps are still lacking. What steps are being taken to overcome this situation?
A: Originally we provided all basic facilities for around 275,000 people. All along we have been doing our best to upgrade these facilities with the resources we had. [However,] now that the population is decreasing, the same facilities there, are for a much [smaller] number of people. Therefore, in my view, the present facilities should suffice.
Demining, infrastructure improvements
|I am unable to give a specific date [for the return of all IDPs] but the government has strengthened all necessary facilities to expedite the process of resettlement. What is important is the demining process which is not that simple|
Q: The government says that demining is being carried out. Could you say where this exercise is being done and could you give a time frame for its completion? How habitable would these areas be?
A: The Sri Lanka army and other agencies are engaged in this process. Their capacities have been improved as well. Machinery was also brought in from China for demining. Many areas in the north have been mined. Financial assistance for demining is given to agencies according to the resettlement plan.
Meanwhile, we are also getting roads constructed, tanks for irrigation renovated and clearing highlands and paddy lands that had belonged to the IDPs. The government allocated Rs.1,750 million [US$15.28 million] for the Vavuniya District to build and develop roads, infrastructure, renovate big, medium and small tanks, schools, hospitals, places of all religious worship, rural electrification amongst many other areas, to facilitate the resettlement of IDPs in Vavuniya. The objective of the 180 days programme is to have all the necessary facilities ready and available for the IDPs by end December 2009. Around 70 percent of the work in the district has been completed.
Some IDPs have been displaced for over 20 years, especially from the Mannar and Vavuniya districts. Their lands have been overgrown and now look like jungles. In Vavuniya, around 4,000 acres [1,619 hectares] of paddy land will be cultivated from lands that belong to the IDPs and had been abandoned for a very long time.
Q: What sort of assistance are other agencies giving at this point in time?
A: Local and international NGOs, UN agencies and local authorities are working towards supplying water, sanitation, medical health, food, education and community capacity-building.
I have visited camps for displaced people in other parts of the world. In two such camps affected by earthquakes the victims were provided with only accommodation, and they had to fend for themselves, otherwise. In one place the people had to walk two miles [3.2km] for water. There were no education or medical facilities provided. But in Sri Lanka, displaced children have sat national examinations.
I must add that WFP provides rice, sugar, dhal, oil, and in some instances, canned fish too.
In addition, with the coordinated efforts of the government and NGOs, complementary food items worth Rs.5,000 [US$43] are provided to a family of five, every month.
We also have special feeding programmes supported by WFP and Médicins Sans Frontières for malnourished, pregnant and lactating mothers, infants and the elderly. UNICEF provides a midday meal for schoolchildren in Grade 9 and under.
A young child is immunised against measles at an IDP camp in Sri Lanka - August 3, 2009
Tuesday, August 4, 2009
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A young child is immunised against measles at an IDP camp in Sri Lanka - August 3, 2009
Photo: UNICEF/Sri Lanka
|A young child is immunised against measles at an IDP camp in Sri Lanka|
We have a special hospital to keep patients with communicable diseases. There are dedicated areas for the elderly and mothers after childbirth. Those who have grave injuries - for example a spinal injury - are given special treatment that includes daily physiotherapy at the Pampaimadu Hospital in Vavuniya.
Q: When do you believe all the IDPs will ultimately be able to return to their homes?
A: I am unable to give a specific date but the government has strengthened all necessary facilities to expedite the process of resettlement. What is important is the demining process which is not that simple.
Every precaution is being taken to ensure that the mined areas are totally cleared so as to make it absolutely safe. We cannot take any chances on that. Therefore, I have to repeat that it is not possible to give a specific date or time frame. But I would like to add that hopefully, it will be soon.