31 December 2013 |

Sri Lanka: Internal displacement in brief

As of December 20113

 

There were up to 90,000 IDPs in Sri Lanka as of the end of 2013. They fled their homes during the country’s 26-year internal armed conflict, which ended in May 2009 with the government’s military victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). More than 480,000 IDPs have returned to Northern and Eastern provinces, but tens of thousands among them are thought not to have achieved a durable solution in addition to those still displaced.

There is a lack of independent and comprehensive data on IDPs and their needs, but it is hoped that a joint needs assessment scheduled for 2014 will address this to some extent. 

The state occupation of land prevented the return of at least 30,000 IDPs living in protracted displacement in 2013, 20,000 of them with host communities, 7,000 in camps and several thousand who were relocated – not always voluntarily – by the government.

The situation in camps is precarious, with infrastructure in need of repair and some due to close because the land they are on has been claimed by the owners. IDPs were provided with housing on some relocation sites, but not with documentation, leaving them without tenure security. Nor did they receive compensation for lost land and property. Many returnees faced challenges in rebuilding their homes, accessing basic services and securing livelihoods.

Land issues were among the main obstacles to durable solutions. A circular published in January favours secondary occupation over the right to restitution, and no mechanism exists to deal with conflicting land claims, such as those in Mannar district where tensions between returning Tamil and Muslim IDPs flared in March. In April, the government began the acquisition of 6,000 acres of private land under military occupation in Jaffna for “public purpose”, which included the establishment of military bases and a military-run holiday resort. More than 2,000 IDPs challenged the acquisition in court, but rulings were still pending as of the end of the year.

The military continued to carry out what would normally be civilian activities in the north and east, including agriculture and tourism, to the detriment of IDPs and returnees with small farms and businesses who found it difficult to compete. Current and former IDPs have not received enough assistance to rebuild their livelihoods and household debt is significant. Some internally displaced women have reportedly resorted to sex work to make ends meet, while other IDPs and host families were said to be eating only two meals a day.   

The widespread presence of the military and its monitoring of households contributed to feelings of insecurity among the civilian population. Women and girls felt increasingly vulnerable to gender-based violence, and the response to reported abuses was generally inadequate. The military also restricted civil rights, including freedom of movement and peaceful assembly.

Tens of thousands of Muslims expelled from the north by the LTTE in 1990 have registered as having returned, but in reality they are thought still to be living in their places of refuge in Puttalam or alternating between Puttalam and the north for want of adequate assistance. They have struggled to re-establish livelihoods and access housing and land in either place. Some who said they would prefer to integrate locally in Puttalam have been unable to register as residents there.

Sri Lanka has no comprehensive legislation or policy on IDPs. A draft policy published in 2013 by the Ministry of Resettlement needs revision to bring it in line with international standards. Among other issues, it focuses only on the initial phase of displacement and does not cover the achievement of durable solutions. IDPs and other stakeholders should also be consulted and participate in the development of the policy.

Since 2009 a presidential task force made up largely of current and former members of the military has been the main decision-making body on all matters of reconstruction and return in Northern province. Administrative barriers have prevented the approval of some initiatives in the north and east, especially capacity building and psychosocial support programmes.

International organisations have shifted their focus from humanitarian to development work since late 2012, but funding for both areas has been significantly reduced. Longer-term funding and support for protection work is much needed if current and former IDPs are to rebuild their lives.