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What happened to the refugees?

The camps are closed but the problems haven't gone away

  • Fr Reid Shelton Fernando, Colombo
  • Sri Lanka
  • October 17, 2012
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The world’s largest camp for internally displaced persons was closed permanently on September 24.

Menik Camp was the last one still open after the end of the civil war. Having heard the experiences of other resettled people, tales of broken promises, of not being allowed back to their original villages, of harassment and ill treatment, some of the last occupants of Menik Camp did not want to leave. But their views were unheeded.

On the day the displaced persons – comprising about 381 families - were moved out, the army bulldozed the camp to the ground.

Where were these people taken? Were they taken to their original villages? It isn’t clear. Moreover, no one seems keen on asking these questions and any news that does come out is monitored or suppressed. So much for media freedom.

The officer in charge of the resettlement did categorically state that the refugees would not be taken to their original villages, citing reasons of “national security.” So why were they moved at all?  Was it simply to remove the term “Internally Displaced Persons [IDPs]” from Sri Lanka’s political landscape? Was it because of the UN Human Rights Council’s scrutiny of Sri Lanka’s rights record? Was it so that Sri Lanka can say to the UN and the world that there are no more IDPs here?

The official explanation for keeping these citizens for so long in sub-human and unhygienic conditions is that the land had to be de-mined. But this is questionable, as security forces and people from the South moved freely around these areas. Of course, another reason for maintaining the camps would be to prevent any future uprising.

But now the camps are closed, the question is how are the returning Tamils going to live? They have not been deployed for development work. In rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure in the North and East, Tamils have been excluded from the workforce.

In Mulativu district, the children of resettled families have no local schools and have to walk many kilometers if they want an education. There is no electricity, no medical facilities and people are not allowed to hold meetings without the approval of the armed forces. Recently in a parish church, there was a function to welcome a new priest, but the parish priest had not  told the relevant authorities. He got into a lot of trouble as a consequence.

Sister Nicola, who regularly visited the people at Menik Camp, confirmed the appalling conditions there. In a report she sent to concerned people and activists, she made the point that their needs and wants are simple: they want to go back to their original villages, cultivate their property, rear cattle and make their own living.

“Today the Tamil people are forced to become paupers and scavengers, digging through rotten garbage," she said. "Even buses refuse to take them. This was the scene in all the places I visited and all I could do was weep. I just could not stop my tears when I saw children and women carrying loads on their backs. These children should be in school, yet the government says they have freed the people and resettled them. Assistance was given only by the UNHCR and some other NGOs. Their future is bleak and dark. Can they hope for a bright future? Only God knows.”

Let’s hope that help will be announced in the 2013 national budget. If not, it will be up to Church organizations, NGOs and social activists. I do feel that this is a God-given task, to show solidarity with these suffering, innocent people.

Father Reid Shelton Fernando is a human rights activist and archdiocese coordinator of the country’s Christian Workers Movement.
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