Internal displacement in Sri Lanka: updated profile summary
The main cause of displacement in Sri Lanka is the armed conflict between the LTTE (The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) and Government forces. Other war-related causes of displacement include forced recruitment by the LTTE, human rights abuse by both sides and inter-communal violence in the east (UNHCR November 2000). The underlying cause of the conflict, which has been ongoing since 1983 is a longstanding dispute between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities in the country. Marginalization of the Tamil community after Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948 led to demands for an independent Tamil state, the Tamil Eelam Nation, and to sporadic violent riots during the 1950s and 1970s.
Since an armed campaign for an independent Tamil state began in 1983 there have been repeated and massive displacements of civilians. Estimates of the total number of IDPs at the end of 1999 ranged from 495,978 to about 800,000 with the latter being the most likely figure. (UNHCR February 2000). As of November 2000 this figure of 800,000 IDPs still seems to reflect the reality. There are three main areas of displacement, which are the Jaffna Peninsula (more than 170,000 IDPs), the "Vanni" (LTTE-controlled or "un-cleared" area south of the Jaffna peninsula and north of Mannar and Vavuniya, host of more than 300,000 IDPs) and the government-controlled or "cleared" areas of Mannar and Vavuniya district (where almost 275,000 IDPs are located) (UNHCR November 2000, pp. 1-2).
Since the beginning of this year, regular rounds of fighting have repeatedly triggered new waves of displacement, mainly in the Jaffna Peninsula. The fighting leading to the capture by the LTTE of the strategic Elephant Pass in April caused 160,000 persons to flee their homes most of them seeking refuge within the Jaffna peninsula. In September there was an upsurge in fighting in the Jaffna peninsula but without any significant displacement since the area had already been evacuated in April and May (UNHCR November 2000, p. 3).
One of the main feature of Sri Lanka's war is its pattern of repeated displacement of persons. Many families have been displaced several times and are thus increasingly vulnerable and dependent. Generally, displaced persons avoid taking refuge in welfare centers as their liberty of movement is severely restricted by a system of pass delivered on a daily basis, which hampers their chances of self-reliance and thus further deepens their food dependency. (UNHCR November 2000, p. 5) It can be estimated that 20% of the 800,000 IDPs live in welfare centers (CGES January 2000).
Even though government forces attempted to publicize information widely before commencing military operations in order to give civilians the opportunity to escape, the armed conflict nevertheless has caused disruption of civilian lives. In November 1999, Amnesty International raised concern about an increasing trend of attacks against civilians in the conflict (AI 23 November 1999). In April the Government stepped up its military response by putting the country on a war footing, which meant an increased infringement on personal liberties in the name of national security. (DRC May 2000, p. 7)
Restrictions on freedom of movement imposed by both sides were in force in the north of the country particularly the Jaffna peninsula and the city of Jaffna where there were numerous military checkpoints (U.S. DOS 2000, sect. 2d).
Other security concerns affecting the displaced include disappearances, extra judicial killings, arbitrary detentions and harassment by soldiers at checkpoints, particularly against women. The Government of Sri Lanka has taken several measures to investigate its own human rights practices, but according to some observers these measures did not appear to have been very effective (U.S. DOS 2000 sect. 1d).
Landmines are a serious problem in Sri Lanka, especially for those displaced who return to their village of origin in the north of the country. Approximately 25,000 landmines are thought to be buried in the country most of them in the Jaffna Peninsula (ACOA October 2000).
The humanitarian situation in the Vanni remains worrisome. The government-imposed embargo on "war-related material" in force since 1992 was further tightened in April 2000. As a result, the provision of food and non-food items, including medicine were seriously restricted, obviously from fear that it would fall into the hands of the LTTE. These restrictions have contributed to a general deterioration in the quality and quantity of medical care, provision of food and shelter in the Vanni region (MSF 26 April 2000).
Access to education for the 270,000 displaced children is undermined by the recurrent nature of displacement itself, which makes it difficult for regular school attendance. Other factors include lack of birth certificates, malnutrition, poverty, lack of teachers and unavailability of schools, which are occupied by IDPs. (SCF-UK May 2000, pp.120-121)
No real progress has been made towards a resolution of the ethnic issue. A bipartisan agreement is needed in order to make the constitutional changes called for in the peace package and until now no agreement has been reached between the two main political parties (PA and UNP). In December 1999 President Kumaratunga was reelected and last October the People's Alliance won the majority at the Parliamentary elections. Since the beginning of 2000 both warring parties have prioritized military gains over peace talks but at the beginning of November some hopes were raised by the meeting of the LTTE leader with the Norwegian peace envoy and by the involvement of the British government in the peace process (BBC 2 & 15 November 2000).
Sources behind this summary: UNHCR, Commissioner General on Essential Services (CGES), Amnesty International (AI), Danish Refugee Council (DRC), U.S. Department of State, Australian Council for Overseas Aid (ACOA), Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), Save the Children-UK (SCF-UK), British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)
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