(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

IDPs in transit centre face uncertain future

A volunteer teacher helps children with their studies at a child-friendly space in the Kiliveddy Transit Centre for IDP families in Mutter Division, Trincomolee District, Sri Lanka, April 2007.The armed conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the L
Brennon Jones/IRIN

Some of an estimated 40,000 Trincomalee residents displaced south - principally to Batticaloa District - by Sri Lanka’s conflict as it intensified in 2006 are in the process of returning to their home areas.

The Kiliveddy transit centre in southern Trincomalee district was set up in early March 2007 to meet their needs and already it has the feel of a crowded bus station, with small numbers of internally displaced persons (IDPs) coming and going.

Some transit through Kiliveddy before returning to their original homes. Others are requested to stay in Kiliveddy because the government says security is too precarious in their home areas.

In a number of cases, however, IDPs say they have been urged by authorities to leave Kiliveddy for their former homes only to quickly return when they discover their homes have been looted or destroyed, or the climate of insecurity and intimidation is unbearable.

Kiliveddy transit camp, muddy and recovering from recent flooding, was built over several months with the support of UN agencies, and international and local NGOs. Services include health, water and sanitation, food assistance and child-friendly play areas.

On 7 April, senior USAID official Michael Hess, Assistant Administrator for the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance, used a visit to the Kiliveddy transit centre to praise the UN agencies and NGOs, saying he “was encouraged that the international humanitarian community was delivering a coordinated response to the basic needs of displaced people in eastern Sri Lanka.”

Eight of the 10 Kiliveddy transit structures - mostly tin or plastic sheeted facilities - are now complete and sufficient to hold more than 5,000 displaced people. The camp currently holds 2,130 people.

Other IDPs stay in improvised smaller sites - the largest being the Kiliveddy school which currently houses 143 families (about 485 individuals). So that children can get back to their classes full-time, these IDP families are soon to be moved from the school either into available transit centre space or to new shelters that are currently being constructed by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

“Waves” of displacement

UN officials in Trincomalee refer to several waves of displacement during 2006.

First, there was inter-communal violence in Trincomalee town between Muslims, Sinhalese and Tamils. The violence was provoked in April 2006 by the killing of a Tamil and a subsequent bombing in the marketplace. A total of 21 people were killed.

Later that month the conflict between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) forces and government troops escalated - as it did in much of the north and east of the country

In the fighting, the government used artillery and air power in attacks on an LTTE base in the village of Sampur, and elsewhere in the district, particularly portions of Muttur, Seruvila and Eachchilampattai divisions. (There are a total of 11 divisions in Trincomalee district). The LTTE retaliated by shelling the naval base in Trincomalee and surrounding areas.


Photo: Amantha Perera/IRIN
Displaced children, originally from Trinomalee District, at play at the Kiliveddy Transit Centre

By July, some 18,000 displaced had sought shelter in western Trincomalee.
The number of displaced Trincomalee residents soon topped 100,000 when the LTTE briefly took control of Muttur town, provoking massive retaliation by government forces. IDPs fled Muttur town and by late August some 63,000 people were displaced in areas in western Trincomalee. Nearly 40,000 headed south, principally to Batticaloa district.

Today, the IDP situation in Trincomalee has improved significantly due to less direct conflict in the area, with only an estimated 5,000 IDPs remaining in the district. Nonetheless, some 23,000 Trincomalee residents remain in the south, mostly in Batticaloa.

The Kiliveddy transit centre was established at the insistence of government authorities - ostensibly to provide temporary shelter for those displaced people returning from the south.

At any time, humanitarian agencies have to be prepared for the possibility of mass returns of IDPs. Several hundred returnees are expected to arrive in Kiliveddy in the coming days, mostly bussed by authorities. There are also frequent arrivals of “spontaneous” returns – small groups of IDP families who take commercial transport to Kiliveddy.

Concerns over involuntary return

While the humanitarian community has been given assurances by the Sri Lanka government that relocation of IDPs would be completely voluntary, some concerns have been raised, chiefly by camp residents themselves.

In an IRIN interview following heavy flooding at the transit camp, Punniyawathy, a 40-year-old woman from the village of Valathottam, Eachchilampattai division, said she and her family fled for Batticaloa in August 2006.

She claimed her group was forcibly put onto buses in Batticaloa and brought to Kiliveddy on 13 March.

“We thought we were being returned to our homes but ended up here,” she said. “We have been questioning the authorities about why we must remain here. To me, it’s just the same feeling as if we were to die.”


Photo: Amantha Perera/IRIN
A displaced person, recently returned from Batticaloa District, prepares a meal in a shelter area at the transit center in Kiliveddy

A March 2007 report from the Inter Agency Standing Committee (IASC) country team, (the IASC groups UN, NGO and Red Cross/Red Crescent humanitarian agencies working in Sri Lanka), echoes some of the concerns of IDPs like Punniyawathy about the manner in which they have been relocated.

“IDPs (originating from Eachchilampattai or Muttur East) that have been transported from Batticaloa have been allocated a shelter at the Kiliveddy transitional shelter site as they cannot return home. Protection monitors report that some of this caseload was under the impression that they were actually returning home until they arrived in Kiliveddy,” the report states.

Government authorities claim that the situation is still insecure, and some areas are still littered with unexploded ordnance. IDPs such as Punniyawathy are anxious to return home regardless of the dangers. “We long to return to our own homes. When we are in our own villages, we can fish and hunt,” she added.

Insecurity in return areas

As well as IDPs who have been told to remain in Kiliveddy because of insecurity in their home areas, there are others who have been sent to allegedly safe areas, only to find their homes looted, destroyed or the security climate too threatening.

Sakunthala, a 30-year-old woman told IRIN, “My family originally went to Batticaloa and was bussed to Kiliveddy on 16 March. When we and a number of other families eventually returned to our homes [in Kanguveli], we found them looted and we were scared to stay in the area.”

Sakunthala’s family, along with nine others, returned to Kiliveddy for safety. Eventually four families moved on to Trincomalee town. Sakunthala added, “We are staying with friends here, but the authorities do not want us to remain.”

Health care burden increasing

The flow of IDPs is putting a heavy burden on the small Kiliveddy hospital. It is run by the government health ministry, with UNICEF providing support with an immunisation programme, high protein biscuit distribution, and the provision of several ambulances. The hospital currently has only one physician, Dr. Swanthararajah, who says with the arrival of the IDPs, the number of outpatients seen daily has soared to an average of 140.

“The principal ailments we’re finding,” said the doctor, “are diarrhoea, chicken pox and viral fever… we can expect more cases of fever with the heavy rain.”

The doctor also said he had seen a number of cases of hepatitis - most likely transmitted from IDPs who have returned from Batticaloa. They are not yet sure what type it is, given that no local capacity exists to diagnose it, however blood samples are currently being evaluated by regional authorities.

Fortunately, Trincomalee remains relatively quiet, compared to Batticaloa and areas in the north where the conflict continues. But the situation in Kiliveddy is a microcosm of complex and rapidly evolving emergencies, challenging the coordination and response capabilities of the humanitarian community on a daily basis. Should thousands of IDPs start returning from Batticaloa, combined, perhaps, with new IDPs flowing from the north if fighting significantly intensifies, Trincomalee’s relief workers will truly be put to the test.

bj/bp/jm

see also
More than 1,000 missing in Sri Lanka

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