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The Plight of Sri Lanka’s Internally Displaced by Robert Muggah


The Sri Lankan government is actively undermining efforts to address a growing humanitarian crisis.

Something rotten is going on in Sri Lanka. More than two years after comprehensively dispensing with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elaam (LTTE), the government is at risk of losing the peace. Rather than reducing the presence of the armed forces in occupied areas and promoting a stable transition, the government is militarizing the country. Far from realizing the promised peace dividend, the North and East now consist of a patchwork of military installations and high-security zones.

An index of just how putrid the situation has become can be discerned by the plight of so-called “internally displaced people.” This label is hardly new to the citizens of this island nation. Sri Lankans, and, in particular, Muslim and Tamil minorities (but also Sinhalese), have suffered successive waves of internal displacement since the early 20th century. Internationally financed development schemes in the interior of the country resulted in mass displacement during the 1950s and 1970s. Since the onset of war in the 1980s, the numbers have swelled again, with hundreds of thousands more relocating abroad as refugees.

Surprisingly few people actually know how many displaced people there are in the country today. The answer seems to depend on who is asked.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are well over 300,000 Sri Lankans still internally displaced after decades of war and more recent natural disasters, including the 2004 tsunami. Many of them languish in temporary “welfare centres” or with friends and relatives. Relief agencies claim that an additional 190,000 displaced people were voluntarily “relocated” either back to their place of origin or to a permanent settlement since the end of hostilities in 2009.

Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan government contends that there are probably closer to 30,000 internally displaced people in the country today. To the Sri Lankan authorities, a civilian is only displaced if he or she is officially registered in a welfare centre. The hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans on the move and in limbo are simply not counted. As a measure of the government’s determination to “end” the displacement crisis, it has chosen to close down its Ministry of Resettlement by the end of this year.

Despite fundamental disagreements over the scale of the crisis, both humanitarian agencies and the Sri Lankan government authorities are encouraging swift return and relocation. But the two sides still cannot come to agree on minimum standards to guarantee the protection of internally displaced people. In 2009, the government abruptly called off efforts to craft a national policy on return, resettlement, and relocation. It would seem, then, that it hopes to end the displacement crisis by force of will alone.

Displacement without end
The persistent challenges to relocating Sri Lanka’s displaced populations cannot be underestimated. A major obstacle is existential, connected to the Sri Lankan government’s preoccupation with “terrorist” remnants of the LTTE and threats posed by resurgent minority groups. Other challenges are connected to the country’s legacy of war and natural disaster, and to the major demographic and socio-economic transformations underway in Sri Lankan society. Yet, one of the most intractable impediments to dealing with the displacement conundrum is the government’s decidedly cynical approach to the “internationally displaced people problem.”

Many Sri Lankan citizens have been repeatedly displaced – first by war, then by natural disasters, and also by “development” schemes. A disturbing example of these “multiple displacements” is presently underway in the eastern city of Tincomalee. There, the government is evicting people under the guise of counter-terrorism and economic progress: A succession of extraordinary gazettes issued since 2006 have declared swathes of one district, Sampur, “high security” and “special economic” zones. The area is to become home to a new coal power plant as a result of a deal signed between the Sri Lankan authorities and India. The only problem is that the land on which the facility is to be built is owned by displaced families.

There are other obstacles to ending displacement, but many of them could be fixed if there was adequate political will. The Sri Lankan government claims, not without some justification, that certain areas are simply too dangerous to inhabit. It is true that many northern and eastern municipalities remain heavily mined and littered with unexploded ordnance. Everything from school playgrounds to community wells was deliberately mined by both the armed forces and the LTTE during the country’s war. But progress in removing the unexploded ordnance has been drastically slowed, due in part to the government’s refusal to allow experienced demining agencies into areas where the most recent rounds of fighting occurred.

Making matters worse is the lack of social services and employment opportunities in the very places to which the government wishes to relocate the displaced. Indeed, a recent World Food Programme assessment determined that more than half of all northern Sri Lankans were living under the poverty line.

Furthermore, the internally displaced are being progressively excluded from the political and economic mainstream. Despite the introduction of an election committee for displaced voters, few know of its existence, much less how to participate. Documents essential for voter registration and access to social services have yet to be produced and disseminated. All of these challenges are as relevant for the so-called “old” internally displaced people (from before 2009) as they are for those displaced by the recent round of fighting.

There are also enormous legal constraints to the reacquisition of property vacated by displaced families over the past generation. Owing to the country’s Prescription Ordinance, ownership of fixed property is allowed to any resident after 10 years of occupancy. Unsurprisingly, thousands of homes evacuated during the conflict were subsequently reoccupied by new tenants, including the Sri Lankan armed forces. From there, the army is selling wares, operating travel agencies, and overseeing a newly built national arts centre. The government has yet to chart out a way to address competing claims and ensure fair restitution schemes.

A bleak future
The international community was spectacularly ineffective in influencing the Sri Lankan government’s self-styled “humanitarian operation” to liberate the North and East between 2006 and 2009. After decades of supporting Sri Lanka’s development, organizations had little capacity to deter the government’s treatment of the displaced. Instead, foreign-aid workers were (and still are) viewed with suspicion and publicly vilified. And having skillfully played his hand against the meddling westerners, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s administration still enjoys remarkable levels of popularity among the southern Sinhalese population.

There appears to be little relief ahead for the country’s displaced. The recent passing of the 18th Amendment – which removes the limit on the number of times the president can run for office – has shored up the executive’s authority. Furthermore, despite pressure from the United Nations Secretary General to investigate and prosecute war crimes, the Sri Lankan government’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission issued only tepid interim conclusions. Unsurprisingly, recommendations have yet to be implemented. The government’s commitment to meaningfully addressing local grievances is dubious: In 2010, just over $15 million was committed to helping internally displaced people, as compared to almost $2 billion for defence.

A tragic irony is that the solutions to Sri Lanka’s seemingly intractable displacement crisis are far from elusive. Government authorities, members of the political elite, local researchers, and activists of all types are cognizant of what needs to be done. Yet, in the absence of equitable national land and return policies and a more transparent attempt to redress past wrongs, the tragic legacy of displacement will most likely be renewed instability.

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