The focus on release figures for Sri Lanka’s displaced obscures the real picture

Sri Lanka’s news outlets have made much of UN Resident Coordinator Neil Buhne’s remarks at an event commemorating World Humanitarian Day in Sri Lanka last week. [1] ‘90% internally displaced persons (IDPs) resettled in North’, ‘Government to meet self-imposed resettlement target’, ‘Resettlement at final stage’.[2]

These headlines add to the growing chorus of ‘good news’ stories emerging from Sri Lanka, on tourism, economic development and – with the Government’s Lessons Learnt & Reconciliation Commission now underway – progress on a sustainable peace. But these stories convey a dangerously one-sided impression.

Yes, the Commission has begun hearings but it has no plans to investigate the final bloody months of civil war and, given the abysmal record of previous domestic inquiries, it is highly unlikely those airing grievances will see justice done. The vehement rejection of an international investigation and the violent protests – including the ridiculous ‘fast-to-death’ stunt of a cabinet minister[3] – in response to a UN advisory panel on ‘accountability issues’ in Sri Lanka are also not reassuring signs.

Yes, the IMF has issued an upbeat assessment of Sri Lanka’s economy, praising the government for reducing the country’s deficit, increasing taxes and cutting spending.[4] But at what cost to the people? Many staples are already beyond the reach of the ordinary citizen. According to the latest data from the Government’s Department of Census and Statistics, the average urban worker takes home 19,237 rupees a month – if she buys a kilo of fish, of cinnamon and of maldive fish in the market, nearly 15% of her wage will be gone.[5]

And yes, more people are travelling to Sri Lanka – this July saw a spike of 51% over last July in British tourists – but the rapid re-development of land, especially up North, is causing grave concern among Tamil war survivors, who fear that their land is being usurped. Coupled with other building projects (many of which have already been handed to firms with ties to the ruling elite or to contractors from China) and the continued imposition of no-entry security zones, their fears are understandable.[6]

The focus on IDP returns is, however, the most damaging. The figure of 90% implies that the humanitarian crisis is now over. Chandra Fernando, a presidential advisor on north and east development, has said that the country has made significant progress in resettling IDPs when compared to what most other conflict-affected countries have achieved in a similar timeframe.[7] Given the dismal the situation one year ago – when the majority of the 300,000 IDPs were still languishing camps, trapped, with limited freedom of movement and restricted access to aid supplies, relief workers and their families – the increased pace of release is of course an improvement. But for a displaced person, release is just the first step.

According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre[8], which publishes figures from a range of sources – government, UN agencies and NGOs, at the end of July 2010 some 83,000 displaced persons were staying with host families; just under 40,000 were in emergency sites awaiting return to their homes; and 3,000 were in transit camps. Many of them cannot go home because the area is riddled with landmines. Others have travelled back to realise that their land is still located in a no-entry security zone. And even those who have returned face enormous difficulties in finding food, shelter, employment and basic services.[9] It will take years for them to rebuild their homes and their lives. The 38,000 who remain in camps should also not be forgotten, as indeed those being held in indefinite secret detention.

Initially, some 11,000 people were kept in separate facilities on suspicion of LTTE involvement. They have had no access to the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the secrecy surrounding their treatment has raised serious concerns about torture and other breaches of Article 3 of the Third Geneva Convention, which applies to civil armed conflict and which Sri Lanka has ratified[10]. Their legal status is not internationally recognised so UN agencies – which need a clear mandate – are not able to help. None of the inmates are thought to have been charged. Earlier this month the Government quietly freed about 3,000 of the most vulnerable. Sri Lankan Rehabilitation Commissioner Brigadier Ranasinghe was quoted as saying that children, ill and disabled people, pregnant women, minor offenders and those who had been acquitted by courts were among those released. [11][12] (It can only be assumed that he is referring to old court rulings as no trials appear to have taken place recently.)

The UN Refugee Agency has repeatedly stressed that the release of IDPs must be safe and dignified. The overwhelming focus of the international community on numbers in camps and Government targets, though well-meaning, has certainly contributed to the desperate situation in which tens of thousands of displaced persons now find themselves.[13][14] This has been exacerbated by a conspiracy of silence: by those who want to help and only reveal half the picture to secure access;[15] by those who are unwilling to act and find it easier to go along with the official line;[16] and, of course, by those who seek to legitimise the Government’s propaganda for whatever reason.[17][18] The ongoing plight of the displaced, meanwhile, continues to set back the larger objective of promoting a sustainable peace and reconciliation in the country.