Leading Catholic aid agency, CAFOD has called on the government of Sri Lanka to end the forced confinement of hundreds of thousands of survivors of the country’s long and bloody conflict and allow them to go home.
This follows a visit by two UK Bishops.(1) Bishop John Rawsthorne of Sheffield said: “I was very distressed at the plight of the people in the camps. There is serious overcrowding and inadequate food and health services. The monsoon season will soon be upon them and could be disastrous for the hundreds of thousands of people stuck there.”
Pauline Taylor McKeown, CAFOD’s head of international programmes, says: “…the issue has faded from the headlines but the problem has not gone away….The majority of these people are civilians and it is difficult to see what security threat they could pose.”
Highlighting that “There are thousands of orphans, elderly people, and those with disabilities who are helpless and need to be moved urgently”, she added that “At the moment this process is painfully slow.”
Bishop John Arnold of Westminster went further saying: “People do not want to be in the camps. They want to be allowed home and to be reunited with their families. The Sri Lankan Government originally set a target for 80 per cent of people to be released within 180 days. 90 days have already passed and we must hold the Government to account on its promises.”
Separately the Government of Sri Lanka freed 571 Hindu priests, six Catholic priests and two nuns but 220 nuns are still held in the camps.(2)
The government has just announced though that relatives or friends of those inside can now apply to accommodate them but according to the BBC “such relatives, like the camp dwellers, will also be subject to screening for possible links with the defeated Tamil Tiger rebels.” If this happens. a policy which could get significant number of vulnerable people out of the camp in time to protect them from the monsoon will again be thwarted.
The Catholic Church has also proposed that 12,000 of the displaced people be allowed to move to a large local church as a first step to returning home and according to Cafod’s Director of International Department, the plan had passed several stages of government approval.
Whilst no date for this movement has been announced so far, these are encouraging early signs that the Catholic Church is starting to make use of its close links with the Government of Sri Lanka.(3)
President Rajapaksa is the first Sri Lankan President to have met with the Pope(4) and the visit was actively promoted in Sri Lanka as an official Papal endorsement.(5) The new Archbishop of Colombo is reported to have close links with the Government and has appealed against international sanctions(6) – comments which were widely reported in Sri Lanka – whilst also speaking out against the ongoing detentions.
This part of the Archbishop’s messages was not well reported by the Sri Lankan media. He asked the Sinhalese people to do everything possible “to ensure” that the Tamils’ “identity and dignity as a people is respected, their rights safeguarded,” lest they “fall back on to the lap of extremists again.”(7)
Making sure that this does not happen and also that Sri Lanka doesn’t become the target of consumer and government boycotts would indeed be “win-win” outcome and one the Catholic Church could be rightly proud of if it should come to pass.