Sri Lanka

Displaced Sri Lankans need more help to return


Saturday 8 February 2003

Many thousands of Sri Lankans now returning home after years of civil war need help to rebuild their lives, says aGeneva-based organisation monitoring war and displacement. In a new report(attached), the Global IDP Project says Sri Lankan returnees to northern war-torn areas need immediate aid to survive, better protection and stronger=A0property rights.=A0

"The government, Tamil Tiger rebels and international donors have done well to stop the civil war in Sri Lanka, but they must do more to help people heading back to areas where almost everything is missing, except thousands of landmines," says Sri Lanka researcher Frederik Kok. "The danger is that under these conditions, solutions to their problems will only be temporary."

The government and aid agencies have not provided enough assistance to over 230,000 returnees, and many thousands more expected to follow this year. Most returnees have headed home with no government support to northern areas, where access to water, sanitation or medical care is almost non-existent. Aid packages have still not been provided under an assistance scheme due to start in December 2002.

Government and rebel authorities are not doing enough to ensure safety for returnees in Jaffna and Vanni. Non-Tamils will not yet return to rebel-held areas, and Tamils cannot return to government 'high security' areas. Apart from the large number of landmines, women and children face particular risks of forced recruitment and abduction by rebels, as well as harassment and extortion by the army.=A0

Many thousands of displaced people also risk being unfairly dispossessed of property under laws that remove ownership after 10 years' absence. Some 100,000 Muslims displaced from Jaffna and Mannar since 1990 would be particularly affected. Returning displaced people have a right to recover property or get appropriate compensation.

Donors should help this process by supporting emergency assistance more generously and by pressing both sides to ensure protection and property rights for returnees.

Contact: Andrew Lawday /
Tel: +41 (0)22 799 0703 / Mob: +41 (0)797979439

Notes to editors

The Global IDP Project is an international non-profit organisation that monitors internal displacement caused by conflicts. On request of the United Nations in 1998, the IDP Database provides public information about internal displacement in 50 countries.

The Project is part of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), an organization that works to protect refugees in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas, which was founded in 1946 in Oslo.

Read the report: Returning Sri Lankans need help (see below)

Contact the author, Sri Lanka researcher Frederik Kok by email:=A0


Geneva, 7 February 2003 - Over 230,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) have headed home in northern Sri Lanka since a ceasefire in 2002. Many more will follow during 2003. Returning IDPs face safety threats, property dispossession and problems of water supply, sanitation and public health. Two large groups need better security arrangements before returning: Some 125,000 non-Tamils from rebel-held areas and some 50,000 Tamils from government 'high security' areas. IDPs stuck in government-run Welfare Centres are among the worst off. The government and Tamil rebels have committed to creating conditions for large-scale returns, but do not yet adequately protect and assist IDPs.

Many returning

Large numbers of internally displaced people have headed home in war-torn northern regions of Sri Lanka since a ceasefire was signed in early 2002. Over 230,000 IDPs spontaneously returned to northern and eastern areas during 2002, exceeding expectations and showing confidence in the peace process 1. Once travel restrictions were lifted and military activities ended in early 2002, IDPs began heading home, at least temporarily to check on security conditions and properties. Many thousands more are expected to follow them in coming months.

Returnees face difficult challenges in their home areas. Most of them are subsistence farmers, fishermen, agricultural labourers and unskilled workers who will need strong support from the government and aid agencies to restart their lives.

Facing particular risks on return are around 125,000 non-Tamils displacedfrom areas due to come under LTTE control in an interim administration. Some 100,000 Muslims long displaced from Jaffna and Mannar, and 25,000 Sinhalese who fled LTTE attacks in the northeast are seeking security guarantees before they will return. Muslim IDPs returned to Jaffna to check security in 2002 but soon returned to Puttalam to await better conditions. 2

Displaced people from the government's High Security Zones (HSZ) will remain displaced as the parties argue over humanitarian and territorial concerns. The Zones were a bone of contention during the last round of peace talks in January, when the Sri Lankan government demanded that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) disarm before allowing some 50,000 civilians to resettle in these areas. Sidestepping the problem, the parties agreed to start resettling people outside the security zones while a group of international military experts studied the problem. 3

Majority yet to return

Although over 236,206 Sri Lankans IDPs have returned home, more than twice as many remain displaced throughout the country. During more than 20 years of civil war in Sri Lanka, more than a million people were uprooted and some 64,000 were killed.

A total of 800,000 Sri Lankans were estimated internally displaced at the end of 2002 4, a broad figure used by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to cover forongoing displacement, homeless returnees and incomplete figures. Some 350,000 IDPs are to be in the Jaffna peninsula and about 300,000 in Vanni 5. In July 2002, some 175,000 IDPs were living in 346 Welfare Centres, mainly in the North 6.

According to latest government estimates, 236,206 IDPs in all have returned home, relocated or are in transit. Of them, 133,083 returned to or within the Jaffna district, 41,451 in Kilinochchi, 30,572 in Mullaitivu, 13,323 in Vavuniya, 9,909 in Mannar and 7,868 in Trincomalee 7.

Landmines, abuses

Displaced people returning in the Jaffna and Vanni areas face risks to their safety from large numbers of landmines. After 20 years of fighting, Sri Lanka is riddled with an estimated 700,000 landmines, most of them buried in heavily populated and fertile areas like the Jaffna peninsula and Vanni, representing a serious threat to civilians 8.

Displaced people still face risks to their safety and rights although violence has generally subsided since the ceasefire. Women and children, the large majority of IDPs, are particularly at risk: During 2002, human rights violations continued to be reported in the north and east, including extortion, protection rackets, child recruitment and abduction. Amnesty International noted IDPs were victims of increasing rapes allegedly perpetuated by police, army and navy personnel in 2001 9. The LTTE was still being accused of child recruitment and abduction during 2002 10.

During 2002 a total number of 556 violations of the Ceasefire were reported by the Norwegian-led Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), 502 of them by LTTE and 54 by Government forces 11. Most violations were cases of child recruitment and abduction by LTTE, and harassment by government forces.

Numerous cases of 'disappearances' were also reported where IDPs were taken into custody from welfare centres, especially after the government stepped up its military response to the Tamil insurgency in 2000, declaring new emergency regulations. Amnesty linked the regulations to increased reports of torture by military forces 12. Other security concerns affecting IDPs included extra-judicial killings, arbitrary detentions and harassment by soldiers at checkpoints.

The exclusion of human rights concerns from the peace process may foster a climate of impunity and injustice unlikely to be help reconciliation. Critics contend that the ceasefire agreement and ongoing negotiations have paid little attention to human rights, with both parties more inclined to prevent new abuses than seriously look into those of the past. Decades of fighting and near total abdication of civil administration to armed groups and patronage networks in the north and east resulted in institutionalised abuses against civilians by the LTTE and pro-government groups 13.

Repeated displacement and long internment in welfare centres has made displaced people a particularly vulnerable and dependent group. Many families have been displaced several times, leaving them increasingly vulnerable and dependent. Generally, IDPs have avoided taking refuge in Welfare Centres where their freedom of movement was severely restricted under a daily 'pass' system. This restriction has hampered the ability of IDPs to cope independently with displacement and deepened their reliance on food aid.

Property loss?

Many thousands of displaced people risk being unfairly dispossessed of their land and properties under current Sri Lankan property laws. The Prescription Ordinance provides that title deeds expire if the owner does not exert usufruct over a property for 10 years. This problem affects 100,000 Muslims displaced from Jaffna and Mannar since 1990, and others who wish to reclaim property after being away for more than 10 years.

IDPs will also struggle to prove ownership over lost property with a land registration system seriously disrupted by the war. While many IDPs either lost or left behind their land title documents after escaping fighting, land registry authorities themselves do not always have the documents; in parts of the north land offices have been destroyed 14.

Many returnees have lost their homes, property and business premises after private and state property suffered extensive damage during two decades of civil war. Others have found their properties occupied by other displaced persons or by military personnel. Requisition of land and buildings by the military occurred frequently during the war, with no compensation generally paid to those evicted.

Return areas devastated

In northern areas earmarked for resettlement, water and sanitation needs remain acute, with a widespread lack of drinking water and sanitation facilities. An estimated three-quarter of returnees will not have access to adequate water supply or proper sanitation, exposing vulnerable groups to high risks of diarrhoea, dysentery and other diseases 15.

Returnees, IDPs and other civilians face a serious lack of medical care in the north resulting from government restrictions and flight of qualified personnel. Many medical professionals and healthcare workers fled the area, causing a shortage of doctors, nurses and medical specialists 16. A World Health Organisation baseline survey showed the depletion of human resources combined with a lack of proper supplies had disrupted all regular preventive and curative services in the northeast 17.

The humanitarian situation in Vanni has remained worrisome despite the easing of a government embargo on 'war-related material' in rebel-held areas from early 2002. The decade-long embargo restricted the flow of food, essential drugs, medical equipment, fuel and cement to the area, devastating health, education, houses, roads and agriculture. Although the government kept a civilian administration structure in LTTE-controlled areas in the North, local services were limited by the strict control of supplies, staff shortages and inadequate infrastructure.

Centres of misery

Displaced people interned for years in state-run Welfare Centres continue to face hunger and stress. As the conflict dragged on, Welfare Centres designed as a temporary solution became semi-permanent with some IDPs spending a decade in these squalid, overcrowded centres.

Large numbers of displaced people have suffered hunger in the Welfare Centres. In early 2002, some 77,000 IDPs were going hungry in Welfare Centres after receiving very little food assistance for three months, and with no alternative sources of food, according to the UN World Food programme (WFP). The main cause of this shortage was the inability of the state to mobilize resources to assist these vulnerable groups 18. The government has failed to provide regular food to the Welfare Centres, and its dry rations often fall short of minimum caloric requirements 19. WFP planned to provide relief rations to vulnerable groups, but this was stalled by a poor donor response 20.

Displaced people also face serious psychosocial problems stemming from long-term stays in Welfare Centres; including high rates of suicide, dependency attitudes, loss of self-esteem, alcoholism and depression. Suicide rates were three times higher in welfare centres than in the rest of the country. A 2001 MSF survey of residents in the Vavuniya Welfare Centre found high levels of traumatic stress due to shocking past experiences and present living conditions. Stress was often associated with physical complaints, such as chest and heart problems or generalized body pains 21.

Immediate help needed

The government and aid agencies have been slow to provide enough assistance to returnees. Scores of thousands who returned to the north did so spontaneously largely without support from the government. Implementation of the Unified Assistance Scheme (UAS), due to start in December 2002, is still being finalized by the government and donors. The UAS package provides a start-up grant for returnees to purchase basic tools, inputs and find temporary shelter to regain a productive livelihood and a permanent housing allowance 22. But distribution of the UAS has been delayed apparently while a 2002 IDP needs assessment by the government and UNHCR is completed.

The government and LTTE have agreed to work together to return displaced people. At peace talks in Thailand in early January 2003, both sides agreed to facilitate returns to war-affected areas through a joint Sub-Committee on Immediate Humanitarian and Rehabilitation Needs (SIHRN) 23. A risk is that short term military considerations will outweigh the rights of displaced people to return home voluntarily in safety and dignity. The Human Right Commission of Sri Lanka found that the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement have been widely breached in recent years, especially under a policy influenced mainly by military considerations 24.

Structures to help the IDPs are in place. In an effort to better streamline and coordinate assistance to IDPs, the government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe established the Ministry of Rehabilitation, Resettlement and Refugees (MRRR) in December 2001. Along with UNHCR, the lead UN agency for IDPs in the country, MRRR developed a framework for Relief, Rehabilitation and Reconciliation (RRR) to assist IDP resettlement and rehabilitate war-affected communities.UNHCR has also been involved in delivery of non-food items, education, water and sanitation improvements, and IDP protection schemes with ICRC 25.

WFP is struggling to feed IDPs in Sri Lanka. In early 2002, the agency had to suspend its relief activities in camps due to limited funding, leaving 77,000 IDPs to be fed by an ineffective government programme. Since late 2002, WFP has concentrated on community-based food-for-work activities in areas of IDP return designed to help strengthen food security and rehabilitate community infrastructure.

Donor support has focused mainly on the task of restoring infrastructure in areas of return; roads, transport, irrigation systems, schools and health services. Less attention has been paid to emergency assistance needed by returnees to rebuild their livelihoods. Donor responses during 2002, on average, left WFP budgets with 60% 26 shortfalls, undermining crucial relief activities.


Displacement chronology

Jan 2003: Government and LTTE hold fourth round of peace talks in Thailand. Fifth round in Berlin, 7-8 Feb. 2003. Over 230,000 IDPs return, relocate or in transit during 2002.

Dec 2001: Government and LTTE agree ceasefire in February 2002. People start returning to home areas.

April-Sept 2000: LTTE launches operation to regain control of Jaffna peninsula. In April, LTTE seizes strategic Elephant Pass displacing 172,000 people in Jaffna.

Oct 1995-April 1996: Sri Lanka army launches a major operation to take control of the Jaffna peninsula. Between 300,000 and 450,000 Tamils leave peninsula, fleeing the fighting and under LTTE pressure. Estimated IDPs, May 1996: 839,161.

Jan-April 1995: LTTE and government enter a "cessation of hostilities" and open peace talks. Peace talks fail in April and Eelam War Three begins.

1992-1993: Many people are resettled in the east and Mannar following government-sponsored initiative, refugees return from India under UNHCR initiative.

June 1990. Eelam War Two. Truce between government and LTTE breaks down and war resumes. Some 100,000 Muslims are evicted from Mannar and Jaffna by the LTTE and seek refuge in Puttalam, Anuradhapura and Kurunegala

1987-1990: India intervenes and pushes government to allow a degree of self-government for Tamil majority areas. Indian peacekeeping forces deployed in north and north-east after Indo-Lanka Accord. LTTE starts to fight Indian peacekeepers, who leave after a ceasefire between the government and LTTE in March 1990.

1983-1985: Eelam War One. Tamil militants ambush government army patrol in Jaffna district, sparking anti-Tamil riots in major cities of the south, forcing some 100,000 Tamils to seek refuge in India. Estimated IDPs, December 1995: 1,017,181.


1. The Global IDP Project, based in Geneva, monitors internal displacement worldwide, as requested by the United Nations in 1998. It is part of the Norwegian Refugee Council, an organization that has assisted refugees worldwide since 1953. For more information about IDPs from conflict in 49 countries, visit our website

2. See full Country Profile on displaced people in Sri Lanka:


Sri Lanka researcher: Frederik Kok
Tel: +41 (0)22 799 0700

Media contact: Andrew Lawday
Tel: +41 (0)22 799 0703


1 UN IDP Working Group, 3 Jan 03,

2 BRC July 02

3 Government of Sri Lanka 8 Jan 03

4 UNHCR, 29 Nov 02

5 IDP Unit April 02

6 UNICEF 23 July 2002

7 UN IDP Working Group 3 January 2003

8 ICBL Aug 02

9 AI, 28 Jan 02

10 India Times 15 Aug 02

11 SLMM 21 January 2003

12 AI, 1 July 00

13 HRW July 02, pp. 8-9

14 Premarathne, Eranthi, p. 6-7

15 UN & GOSL 23 Aug 02, p. 21

16 MSF 9 Feb 02

17 WHO Aug 02, pp. 96-98

18 WFP, 28 Feb 02

19 WFP 19 September 2002

20 UN & GOSL 23 Aug 02, p.14

21 MSF 31 May 01, p. 25

22 UN Inter-Agency IDP Working Group 28 November 2002

23 Royal Norwegian Government 9 Jan 03

24 Gomez, Mario, July 02, pp. 15-18

25 UNHCR, Nov 00, pp11-12

26 WFP 11 November 2002

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The Global IDP Project: