Tens of thousands of detained refugees from the war in Sri Lanka are threatened by the imminent arrival of monsoon rains in the north of the country, according to an internal United Nations document.
The UN believes that about 66,000 people held in the vast Menik Farm internment camp since May face a humanitarian disaster when the rains start, bringing the spectre of disease. Officials have urged the government to move those whose tents are most likely to be flooded by a mixture of rain and sewage.
The government says that the dangers are being exaggerated and that it has dug enough drainage ditches to cope with rising water levels in 90% of the camp. It has also accused the UN of failing to provide adequate accommodation and toilet facilities for those in the camps.
But the latest assessment of the humanitarian situation by the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) identifies three zones in Menik Farm as being at dire risk in the monsoon season. Gordon Weiss, the UN spokesman in Sri Lanka, said the threat had been obvious: "We have been saying for a while that we think there is going to be a serious problem when the monsoon rains come. There were rains a couple of months ago, which displaced thousands of people in the space of a couple of hours. The monsoon is going to be a much more punishing force.
"Unless people are moved from these areas, they are going to be in trouble from an inundation of water that will make it impossible to live. Up to 66,000 people will be flooded. The latrines will overflow, water supplies will be unusable and access by wheeled vehicles impossible. It will be pretty unbearable."
Last week, Britain's international development minister, Mike Foster, visited Menik Farm and warned of the threat of disease as a result of the monsoon. Announcing that UK funding would be withheld after the monsoon, he said he was unhappy with the continued detention of many in the camps and 70% should now be allowed to leave. "If we continue to fund day-to-day commitments of running those camps, there is no incentive for the government to encourage people to leave," he added.
OCHA's October 2009 humanitarian report notes that "key priorities for preparedness include moving people out of the most vulnerable zones, decommissioning toilets and bathing areas, as well as implementing mitigating measures, such as extensive drainage works and fencing around ditches".
New York-based Human Rights Watch Asia director Brad Adams said yesterday: "If they aren't out of there before the monsoons hit, their lives and health will be in serious danger." The group called on donors such as Japan, the US and EU to press Sri Lanka to free the war displaced.
Weiss said the authorities had started to move some people out of the camps, but the UN had urged it to speed up the process. After the rout of the Tamil Tiger rebels in May, the government pledged that civilians who were interned in the camps after fleeing the fighting would be returned home within 180 days.
Estimates vary of the numbers of civilians picked up by the military as they fled the fighting, but the total is thought to be close to 300,000. The government argued that it needed to screen them to weed out former Tamil Tiger fighters and others with links to the group. About half are believed to have been screened.
According to the OCHA report, 253,567 people are interned in the main camps, with another 3,358 in transit camps and 1,984 in hospitals. More than 11,000 people suspected of links with the Tamil Tigers have been sent for "rehabilitation" at camps elsewhere in the country.
The report said that 6,813 people had returned to their homes and another 7,835 had been released from the camps. Last week, Mahinda Samarasinghe, Sri Lanka's human rights and disaster management minister, said the latest figures were 10,593 and 22,668 respectively.
The government says it plans to release thousands more people in the coming weeks. But Rajiva Wijesinha, permanent secretary to Samarasinghe's ministry, said that there were still security concerns which prevented a more widespread release.
He disputed the OCHA assessment and criticised some UN agencies for failing to provide adequate facilities for those in the camps, claiming that subcontractors used by Unicef in particular had carried out substandard work. He said the UN agencies had been urged to raise the standard of toilets and accommodation in the camps. Wijesinha said he did not think that so many people would be affected by the rains. "We don't see this as potentially a major problem, but it is something we have to be careful about," he said.
He said some people seemed determined to criticise the government whatever it did: "There are some people who prefer to be prophets of doom."
If the camp does flood, moving the worst hit will not be simple because, as the OCHA report highlights, all but one of its eight zones are already overcrowded and the one which is not has room for fewer than another 2,000 people. Reports from people released from the camps, and those still inside, suggest conditions remain difficult, with limited access to water and good sanitation.
Much of the £12.5m donated to Sri Lanka by Britain in the past year has been used to help people in the camps and another £4.8m has been allocated but not yet spent.
Monday, October 12, 2009
Monday, October 12, 2009
A group of Sri Lankan expatriates are organizing an armed struggle covering to peace and democracy, according to Sri Lanka Prime Minister Rathnasiri Wickramanayaka.
Addressing the debate for the extension of emergency regulations at the parliament, Prime Minister Wickramanayaka said that the rebel cadres of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE) are staying in Colombo stealthily until they will have an opportunity attack again. He emphasized the need for extending the emergency due to these facts.
The Prime Minister revealed that a landmine went off in Jaffna recently killing several people. Security forces are continuing operations to recover hidden weapons and explosives. Resettlement of the IDPs of the Northern Province is slowed due to this reason, he said.
The unnamed group highlighted in the speech of the Prime Minister appears to be the Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS), the recently formed organization of expatriate Sri Lankan journalists. The organization was in media limelight with a controversial video clip aired by UK's Channel-4 in which persons suspected to be of Sri Lankan state security forces were executing prisoners said to be ethnic Tamils. The government says it has proved the video is fake through reports compiled by four experts hired by it.
Sri Lanka government is in dire need of a capable scapegoat to fill the vacuum created by the defeat of the LTTE to maintain the tension to deviate the people's attention from economic issues such as cost of living ahead of major elections coming early next year. However, JDS is next to nothing compared to LTTE and the government has to make a mountain out of a mole hill to puff up the necessary terrifying image of the enemy.
The emergency was passed in the parliament by a majority of 70 votes with 82 voting for it and 12 against. Only major Tamil constituent Tamil National Alliance (TNA) voted against. Major opposition United National Party abstained and the Marxist People's Liberation Front (JVP) was not present in the parliament at the time of voting.
© Lanka Polity
Monday, October 12, 2009
The Sri Lankan government should immediately release the 250,000 displaced Tamils still held in detention camps, Human Rights Watch said today. Deteriorating conditions, including a shortage of water since October 5, 2009, combined with the prospect of flooding during the imminent monsoon season, have led to rising tensions among camp residents and clashes with the military.
Human Rights Watch called on international donors such as Japan, the United States and European Union member states to send a clear message to the Government of Sri Lanka that continued detention of the displaced will have serious consequences for Sri Lanka's relationship with the international community.
"With all these people penned up unnecessarily in terrible conditions, the situation in these camps is getting tense and ugly," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "If they aren't out of there before the monsoons hit, their lives and health will be in serious danger."
The Sri Lankan government has confined virtually everyone displaced by the recent conflict to detention camps, unlawfully depriving them of their liberty and freedom of movement. According to the UN, by the end of September - more than four months after the end of the armed conflict - the government continued to hold 255,551 displaced persons in camps and hospitals, the majority in a large complex of camps called "Manik Farm" in Vavuniya district.
The government has come under increasing criticism for its refusal to release the displaced Tamils. On September 29, Walter Kälin, the representative of the UN secretary-general on the human rights of internally displaced persons, criticized the slow pace of release, saying that "immediate and substantial progress in restoring freedom of movement for the displaced is an imperative if Sri Lanka is to respect the rights of its citizens and comply with its commitments and obligations under international law."
Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has warned that Sri Lanka risks creating "bitterness" if it fails to resettle Tamil refugees quickly, and on October 6, the British development minister, Mike Foster, said after a visit to the camps that, "freedom of movement is critical if a humanitarian crisis is to be averted."
Human Rights Watch said that the government's screening of camp residents for LTTE supporters has been non-transparent and protracted and that even people who have apparently been screened and cleared have not been released. In September, the Sri Lankan foreign minister announced that 162,000 camp residents had been screened. According to the UN, however, the government had released fewer than 15,000 as of September 28.
On several occasions the government has falsely claimed that it has allowed thousands detained in Manik Farm to return home. On September 24, for example, it announced that 40,000 people had returned to their districts. In reality, many of the people that the government claims to have released have been transferred from Manik Farm to other detention camps, while others are still held at a "way station," a temporary holding facility, in Vavuniya. According to the UN, more than 1,500 people who were transferred from Manik Farm to the way station on September 13 and were due to be released, are still held there, surviving in rapidly deteriorating conditions.
"While the government has the right to screen the displaced persons for security reasons, the process has turned into a ruse to hold as many Tamils for as long as possible in the camps," Adams said. "The government's untruthful statements and promises should not fool anybody anymore."
The international community should demand that the Sri Lankan government release the people in the camps and ensure their well-being, Human Rights Watch said.
Deteriorating conditions in the camps
Several displaced persons told Human Rights Watch that camp conditions have recently deteriorated, creating tension and unrest.
Residents in several sections, called "zones," of Manik Farm have had only limited access to water since a main pipeline pumping water from a nearby river was turned off on October 5 because of low water levels in the river. Camp administration officials have restricted the amount of water per family to 30 liters. The UN refugee agency recommends a minimum of 15 liters of water per person per day.
Thirty-eight-year-old "Jeevitha," a camp resident in Zone 2, told Human Rights Watch:
"This morning I managed to get only 20 liters for our family of five. I won't be able to get more until tomorrow and this water is all we have for drinking, cooking, washing and bathing. For the last three days we have not been able to take a bath or clean properly. It is agony, and the camp administration here does not seem to care about us."
"Aanathi," a 30-year-old woman living in Zone 2 with her 1-year-old son, told Human Rights Watch:
"I stood in line for four-and-a-half hours today, but I gave up in the end. I am so tired. Yesterday, I lined up around midnight and I was only able to get water at nine in the morning. I got 30 liters for me and my one-year-old son. We managed with that, but I know of families with 10 or more family members who have to survive on the same amount."
"Maadhavi," a 32-year-old resident in Zone 1, said that people are getting desperate because of the water shortage. On the morning of October 7, when the water suddenly came back for about 30 minutes, people were scrambling to fill their buckets and a fight broke out:
"People were shouting and throwing stones at each other. We went to the camp administration, but they just told us that we have to endure it. If they don't get us water by tomorrow, we will tear down the fences and go to find water ourselves!"
Over the past two weeks, the Manik Farm camps have also been hit by strong winds, causing damage to shelters and exacerbating the already difficult living conditions. Twenty-year-old "Kumaravel," who lives in one of the camps with his family of five, told Human Rights Watch:
"The winds are tearing branches off the trees and tin sheets off the huts, which then fall on the tents. We are forced to cook outside and the wind blows dust and mud into our food, making it practically inedible. It is very difficult to live here."
Because of overcrowding in the Manik Farm camps, Kumaravel's family shares their five-person tent with another family of four. The section in Manik farm where they live, Zone 2, holds more than 52,000 people even though there should be fewer than 29,000 people there under UN standards. At night, the women sleep inside the tent while the men either sleep outside or in one of the camp's makeshift classrooms. Kumaravel is worried about what they will do during the rainy season, which usually starts in October:
"We had heavy rains about a month ago. It was hell. The ground here cannot absorb water so it just gathers. We couldn't even walk around. The authorities have done some work to improve drainage, but I doubt it will help much."
Rains in mid-August caused serious flooding, as water destroyed tents and other shelter, made cooking impossible for many, and caused roads to collapse, preventing delivery of crucial aid, such as drinking water. Water also flooded latrine pits, causing raw sewage to flow among the tents. Since then, shelter in Manik Farm - most of which was set up during the large influx of displaced persons in April and May -has further deteriorated. The emergency tents or shelter kits in which most people live were designed to last for three to six months.
Clashes between residents and the military
The mounting frustration among the displaced caused by the deteriorating conditions and lack of free movement has led to conflicts with the military guarding the camps. On September 26, soldiers opened fire on a group of camp residents, wounding at least two. A military spokesperson claimed the guards were compelled to fire when the group tried to escape and started throwing stones and a hand-grenade. The authorities also quickly concluded that, "The wounded suspects and the crowd had links with the terrorists."
However, witnesses gave Human Rights Watch a different account, explaining that Manik Farm camp residents are sometimes allowed to cross between two Zone 1 and Zone 2 to visit relatives or to collect firewood (which is unavailable in Zone 1). At around 5:30 p.m. on that day, a long line of people were waiting for permission to cross the road separating the camps when a soldier called on a man carrying firewood to come forward. Four witnesses independently told Human Rights Watch that the soldiers suddenly attacked the man. Kumaravel, who was one of the witnesses, told Human Rights Watch:
"A soldier started beating the man. Then another joined in. The people in the line tried to intervene, but one of the soldiers opened fire and the other took out a hand grenade and threatened to throw it. Soon, other soldiers arrived and started beating people."
Two witnesses told Human Rights Watch that after the soldiers had dispersed the crowd, the first soldier placed a hand grenade among the wood the man had been carrying and photographed it with his cell phone. Witnesses said that the man was taken away and that the wounded were taken to hospitals. The government said 19 displaced men were arrested after the incident. Human Rights Watch has obtained credible information that at least some of the arrested were beaten during their detention. At least some of those detained were later released.
The incident came just days after soldiers clashed with camp residents in another camp in Vavuniya. On September 23, residents at the Poonthotham camp attacked soldiers and police officers and their vehicles after the police took one of the camp's residents away. The riot, which lasted for three hours, ended when the police brought the man back.
"These incidents should serve as a wake-up call for the government and donors," said Adams. "It's time for international donors to send a clear message to Colombo that continued and blatant disregard for international standards will come at a price."
© Human Rights Watch
Monday, October 12, 2009
A quarter of a million Tamil civilians detained in state-run camps since the end of Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict are in an increasingly "tense and ugly" situation, a rights group said Sunday.
Deteriorating conditions, drinking water shortages and the imminent monsoon have raised tensions among the detainees and sparked clashes with military guards, said the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
"If they aren?t out of there before the monsoons hit, their lives and health will be in serious danger," said the group's Asia director, Brad Adams.
The government has said it is holding the displaced Tamils to screen them for former Tamil Tiger fighters -- the separatist force that was finally defeated in May after decades of bloody warfare in north and east Sri Lanka.
Adams said the screening had become "a ruse to hold as many Tamils for as long as possible."
Most of the detainees are held at Manik Farm, a vast complex of makeshift shelters, which aid agencies and reporters are unable to visit freely.
Last month Sri Lankan troops opened fire as dozens of detainees tried to escape from the camp, injuring at least three.
The monsoon is expected to start within weeks.
Monday, October 12, 2009
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa's ruling coalition has recorded a strong victory at the polls in his native south, helped by his popularity after defeating Tamil Tiger rebels in a 25-year war.
The president's coalition won 38 seats in the 55-member council of Southern Province in Saturday's poll, election officials said early on Sunday.
The popular vote for parties in Rajapaksa's United Peoples Freedom Alliance was 68 percent, a lopsided win but less than the 70-80 percent the government had forecast in the province, where Rajapaksa has started massive development projects including the country's largest port.
The margin was still strong enough that Rajapaksa is now likely to call early national elections.
Election monitors have said there was some violence, but it was low compared to pre-poll incidents.
Opposition parties had alleged use of state media and resources, as well as promises of government jobs, to the ruling party's advantage during the campaign.
With the victory, Rajapaksa's ruling coalition has won all eight provincial elections held in a staggered manner since May 2008 to select provincial councillors. Only the formerly Tiger-ruled Northern Province has yet to vote.
Analysts say Rajapaksa would opt for an early presidential poll, which his allies expect him to call in March, while still enjoying popularity from winning the war against the Tigers.
That popularity could fade if anticipated economic benefits from peace fail to materialise. There is already public grumbling over the high cost of living.
In May, Rajapaksa's government defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who fought a 25-year war with successive governments for a separate state in the country's north and east.
Rajapaksa is also expected to call parliamentary polls in March.
Were Rajapaksa to gain a two-thirds majority in parliament, he would have the votes to change Sri Lanka's constitution. [ID:nSP539379]
Constitutional changes are part of what Sri Lanka's minority Tamils, who say they are discriminated against, want and could help prevent new conflicts. Rajapaksa has said he expects to incorporate some of them if he is re-elected to a second term.
The earliest Rajapaksa can call a presidential poll under the constitution is when he completes his fourth year at the helm in November.
If Rajapaksa did not call early polls, the next parliamentary election would be held in April, and the next presidential poll in November 2011.
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