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Long-term Muslim displaced face significant challenges

Long-term but temporary housing for Muslim displaced in Hidathnagar village, Puttalam District.
(Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC))

It was 17 years ago, but the memory is still fresh for T. Mohamed. “It was 11 June 1990 - that was the day,” he recalled, the one that changed his life.

“I was in Colombo, captaining the Jaffna District soccer team and later I found myself cut off from my home town Jaffna,” the 45-year-old Sri Lankan remembered. Mohamed, who is now a social worker, was among the thousands of Muslims forced out of their homes in northern Sri Lanka by the Tamil Tigers in 1990. In his case, caught out on a visit to the capital, he was unable to return because the train and other transport services to Jaffna District were cut due to the escalating violence.

Four months later, in October 1990, thousands of Muslims fled Jaffna after the Tamil Tigers issued warnings that they must flee the region or face deadly consequences.

Muslims in Tiger-held areas of the northern districts of Mannar, Kilinochchi, Mulaithivu and some parts of northern Vavuniya also fled after warnings were issued to their communities in the third week of October 1990.

In a report released in May 2007 - Sri Lankan Muslims Caught in the Cross Fire - the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said that as many as 75,000 Muslims from 15,000 families may have been forced out.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in its Report on 2006 Welfare Centre Revalidation in the Puttalam District, found that over 62,000 displaced Muslims from 15,400 families were living in 141 locations in Puttalam District, about 120km north of Colombo.

''There are lots of problems in returning home. One is transport as there is no land link to Jaffna, and two is security. What guarantee is there that what happened in 1990 will not happen again?''

Muslim displaced choose not to return

Most of the people surveyed had been living in their current locations for more than a decade, with 96 percent indicating a preference to stay there rather than return to their places of origin.

“There are lots of problems in returning home,” Mohamad believes. “One is transport as there is no land link to Jaffna, and two is security,” he said. “What guarantee is there that what happened in 1990 will not happen again?” The UNHCR confirms that the Muslim preference to remain in Puttalam may have been influenced by concerns about security.

One sign that many Muslims will not be returning home in the near future is that, according to the UNHCR report, “a majority of Puttalam IDPs [internally displaced persons] have already de facto locally-integrated in Puttalam.” In fact 11,118 of the displaced Muslim families have purchased land in the district.

World Bank project

Many Muslim IDPs are hoping that, with World Bank (WB) assistance, their living conditions will soon improve. In early September 2007, the WB launched a US$34.2 million project for the Sri Lankan government to provide housing, safe drinking water and sanitation and for the displaced of Puttalam District. The project was also designed to regularise land titles.

The Sri Lankan government, which is contributing $2 million to the four-year project, will repay the WB loan over 20 years. One aim of the project is to repair or build 7,835 houses for Muslim IDPs and to build 9,885 new latrines.

Non-IDPs will also benefit

The WB said it was sensitive to concerns that the project might increase tensions between the displaced Muslims and the original residents of the district.

A map of Jaffna peninsula in northern Sri Lanka

“It is as much a project for the non-IDPs as for the IDPs,” Naresh Duraiswamy, the team leader for the WB project, told IRIN. Though the non-IDPs will not benefit from the initial cash grants for housing construction, they will receive some assistance. For example, the provision of safe drinking water, which 13,354 IDP families will receive, will also go to 3,291 non-IDP families, according to the WB. Duraiswamy said 1,800 non-IDP families will also be given funds within the next six months to construct their own houses.

Despite the scale of the WB project, much more is required if the IDPs are to be fully integrated within the host communities, according to the UNHCR survey.

The WB says only 50 per cent of the IDP housing needs will be met under its project, with homes being provided only for original IDP families, not for their dependents.

Closure of welfare centres

To further integrate the Muslim displaced, a main objective for this year will be the closure of long-term welfare centres, says UNHCR Information Assistant Sulakshani Perera, and the establishment of villages in which IDPs are given help to build permanent housing.

The WB project is a significant start in terms of helping the Muslim IDPs integrate, but, according to the 2006 UNHCR report, there are a host of broad challenges ahead:

“The integration of Puttalam IDPs would be facilitated if they were to receive assistance in the form of improved access to public services such as water, health and education as well as construction of basic infrastructure such as access roads,” it said. Unemployment is also an impediment: 60 percent of the IDPs over 18 have no employment, according to the UNHCR survey.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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