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A Crisis of Sri Lankan Proportions: a Mission to Eastern Sri Lanka

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The people in the Batticaloa district of Eastern Sri Lanka are enduring a humanitarian crisis with over 150, 000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) reported in the area in late march, under the threat of ongoing military operations as well as abductions, disappearances and killings. In this fact-finding report conducted by NGOs in Sri Lanka, the increasingly dire situation is detailed, including allegations of forced resettlement of IDPs, poor conditions in camps—overcrowding, limited rations—putting extensive stress on humanitarian groups to manage the catastrophe.
Representatives from the Centre for Policy Alternatives, INFORM Human Rights Documentation Centre, Law and Society Trust and Women and Media Collective visited Batticaloa and Vakarai from 10th – 11th April to assess the humanitarian situation in Batticaloa. We visited a number of camps in Kiran, Thiraimadu, Aryampathi housing Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and spoke to several who were displaced from various parts of Batticaloa and Trincomalee. The team also met with the Brigade Commander currently in charge of Vakarai, staff of the Batticaloa branch of the National Human Rights Commission, Church leaders and staff of local and international NGOs.

Executive Summary

Over the year Batticaloa District in Sri Lanka has been the site of multiple displacements. Against the backdrop of intensified military operations, particularly in Vakarai, Thoppigala and Vavunathivu, and daily violence, communities have been forced to flee. At the end of March, Batticaloa District had roughly 150,000 IDPs both from within the district and from Eastern Trincomalee. As a result it is estimated that approximately one third of the district’s population had been displaced. By April 10 the figure had dropped to 147,073 as a result of a government-driven resettlement program in Vakarai. While reportedly 90% of the displaced from Vakarai had been resettled, renewed fighting in Vavunathivu has resulted in new waves of displacement.

The government has attempted to ensure that conditions conducive to resettlement and normalization are in place including assistance schemes for returnees in the form of rations and packages for fishermen, a de-mining operation, an electrification scheme and an improved public bus system at Vakarai. Yet, there appear to be problems with ration distribution as recent returnees around Panchienkerny claimed that they had not received rations since being resettled. The manner in which Vakarai has been resettled with allegations against the government on forced resettlement—which was attested to by people with whom we spoke to in the area—has raised concerns among humanitarian actors and displaced communities from Kokadichcholai and Vavunathivu that the latter will also be forced back to their homes. The displaced from these areas, a number of whom are farmers, fled during harvest time and are afraid that they may also incur additional economic losses including damages to their homes and land and looting of their property.

The humanitarian situation of the displaced continues to be an issue of concern. Conditions in welfare camps vary with some of the larger camps such as Thiraimadu and Arthiviravar being over-crowded with shortages in tents and toilets. Similarly, the ration distribution system differed from camp to camp with some having a more effective distribution system – each family receiving its allotted ration items on a regular basis, while in others food for the entire camp was being cooked communally and families not being provided the amounts as laid out in government policy. The sheer scale of displacement has placed tremendous pressure on humanitarian service providers including local NGOs, INGOs and government servants. The World Food Programme’s (WFP) announcement that they have food for 100,000 within the district only up to July has raised concerns regarding capacity in dealing with the situation and disaster preparedness. Some of the issues raised by the IDPs, such as lack of drainage, sanitation and adequate toilet facilities in camps, were a repeat of those voiced previously by tsunami IDPs. Some new IDPs are being settled in the shelters previously occupied by tsunami IDPs.

Local communities have also played a significant role in dealing with the waves of displacement. A significant number of IDPs are being housed with friends and relatives acting as host families. While efforts have been made to register these IDPs, they do not receive rations regularly, raising concerns regarding differential treatment of IDPs.

As the security situation in Batticaloa remains tense with ongoing military operations and daily violations including killings and abductions reported across the district, the IDPs face significant security threats like the rest of the population. The artillery firing including multi-barrel rockets that continued on and off throughout the day and specific incidents such as the artillery attack on a camp in Kiran that killed a baby, and a spate of shooting in Valaichennai, in the days immediately prior to our visit, made clear the threats that people face.

(Read full text of Fact-finding Mission , in .pdf)