Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka: Fact finding mission to Udappuwa

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Representatives from INFORM (Sunila Abeysekera and Udaya Kalupathirana), The Centre for Policy Alternatives (Bhavani Fonseka) and Rukshana Fernando (Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development) traveled to Udappuwa in Puttalam District on 18 June 2006, to investigate reports of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs).

Background

The visit was undertaken in response to a report from the Praja Diriya Padanama in Puttlam that a number of Tamil persons displaced from Tambalagamam and its environs in Trincomalee due to the recent escalation of violence had reached Udappuwa in the Mundel Police Division. Tambalagamam is the location of the claymore bomb that took the lives of 11 SL Navy personnel on April 11 and that provided the catalyst for the violence that has plagued the District since then.

Udappuwa is a coastal village situated in the Puttalam District with a mixed Tamil and Sinhala population. It is extremely disadvantaged in terms of public amenities and infrastructure and the people are primarily engaged in fishing for their livelihood. There are approximately 80 families displaced in the 1990s from Thambalagamam village in Trincomalee District who are presently resident in Udappuwa, and who have become an integrated part of the local community. It seemed that the recent migration to the area from Trincomalee is due to the links with family and friends who are already residing in the area.

The present situation

There are 39 families from Thambalagamam village who are resident in Udappuwa as at 10 a.m. on June 18, 2006. There were 144 persons in all, consisting of 45 adult males, 42 adult females, 45 children between 18 and 5 and 14 children under 5 years old, according to the census carried out by the Praja Diriya Padanama and the local Police and confirmed by the filed visit team.

They arrived here in batches beginning from mid-April this year due to the escalating violence in Trincomalee district. People were still leaving, they informed us. Even those who did not want to leave when the first batch of people did, were not changing their minds. The previous evening, a new group of 8 families had arrived from Thambalagamam.

Everyone said they left out of fear of attacks. One older man told us that they had been quite 'prosperous'. He for example had owned a tractor and a shop in the town. They left their homes with only what they could carry. Now they are at the mercy of friends and family members who have temporarily allowed them to stay in the small coconut thatched huts on the beach that have been erected for use during the fishing season. The newcomers have no guarantee that they are welcome for a long-term stay.

Although the IDPs in Udappuwa received dry rations from the Government when they first arrived in April, this has now stopped and they are not receiving any assistance from the authorities. Unconfirmed reports stated that the Additional District Secretary in the area had refused to give them further assistance, saying that they were perceived as a security threat, and asked them to leave the area.

Such statements highlight the prevailing situation of tension and insecurity that can lead to communities like this one being completely ignored and absent from the radar of the humanitarian relief agencies. It also exposes the high vulnerability of such groups. Assistance by other actors to the IDPs in Udappuwa has been sporadic. There were no signs of international humanitarian agencies having initiated any assistance programmes.

None of the adults in the 39 families have yet found jobs in the area. These people were originally farmers in Thambalagamam. Some that we spoke to said they had worked as masons, others as daily paid agricultural labourers. They are unable to find employment in the immediate vicinity of the place they are living in at present, and have no experience of the fishing industry in which jobs may be available. Thus, this community has lost their means of livelihood and has no viable livelihood options presently available to them.

A positive development we observed was that the Principal of the local school had agreed to let the children enter school and continue their education. We were informed that this was largely due to the fact that the medium of instruction in the school was Tamil, the Principal was Tamil, and these were Tamil children. This was in marked contrast to the experience of the IDPs living in Negombo who are originally from Kokilai in Mullativu School Principals in the local schools in Negombo have very reluctant to grant admission to the IDP children.

Immediate concerns

In Udappuwa, there are approximately 45 school-going children among the IDP community. Two of them are studying for their Advanced Level examinations next year, 8 must sit the GCE OL exams in December 2006. Though the children had been admitted to the school, and the Grama Sevaka had distributed cloth for making school uniforms among them, they had no books and other essential school equipment. With school reopening the next day (19 June), there were no measures taken by the authorities or other actors to address this situation.

People still had insufficient clothes, and cooking utensils, and lacked many essential household items such as coconut scrapers, pots for rice and water, cups and plates.

Additional information

While in Udappuwa, people told us of another group of IDPs from Trincomalee in another village, Pulichchikulam, in the area. According to them, there were 60 families who had come from Trincomalee in the last several weeks, and were staying with family and friends.

This case further demonstrates the trend of displacement where people are leaving their homes as a result of the escalating violence and the fear of being targeted by armed groups, to move in with family and friends. As these IDPs are temporarily absorbed into communities where they have family and friends, and not in welfare camps established by the state, they are often not reflected in the official figures as displaced persons. This invisibility deprives them of access to any and all assistance forthcoming from the state and from government sponsored initiatives. They miss out on their entitlements, and all forms of assistance and opportunities available to those displaced persons who are located in welfare camps or in places recognized by the authorities.

Authorities need to look at options for these families, and possibly others who will be coming in the future, as none seemed keen on returning to Trincomalee anytime in the future.