Away from the idyllic, tropical paradise beaches of Sri Lanka, a civil war has been raging for the last twenty years. Jaffna, once a thriving port in the north of the island, is now a decimated skeleton of a city: buildings have been flattened by bombs, homes shot out and deserted. During the course of the war, around 800,000 people were forced to leave their homes and all their possessions. Even though they were displaced within their own country, they have lost everything: their livelihoods, their community and often their families.
Rosala lives in the west of Sri Lanka. She’s been in a camp for internally displaced persons – IDPs – for fourteen years, unable to return to her home because of the civil war. She’s one of 25 million people internally displaced because of conflict in over 50 countries around the world – citizens, fleeing from civil wars or ethnic cleansing, or other conflicts within the borders of their own countries.
Jan Egeland, Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, United Nations, explains:
‘When there is an international war and when there are international refugees there is a lot of attention – always’¦ But the internal displaced are the forgotten and neglected people in the forgotten and neglected emergencies around the world.’
What is more, IDPs lack certain rights which refugees do have under international law. And as Neill Wright, UNHCR’s Sri Lanka representative, points out: “They are incredibly vulnerable – they’ve lost a lot of their own self-confidence, they’ve lost a lot of their possessions, they are dependent on others to help them and they’re quite often having to live in appalling conditions.’
The roots of the conflict go back to attempts by the Singhalese-dominated government in 1956 to check what they saw as the excessive influence of the Tamils during the colonial era. Over the years, the failure of Tamil political parties to reach a peaceful settlement with the Singhalese majority led to demands for their own independent, Tamil state – and a militant movement, the Tamil Tigers – dedicated to achieving this goal. Over sixty thousand people have been killed and over 800,000 forced to flee their homes during the conflict. A cease-fire was finally agreed two years ago and the fighting stopped, but more than half the families displaced by the fighting are still unable to return home.
Puttalam on the West coast is home to around 50,000 internally displaced people – one of the biggest concentrations in the country – most living in welfare centres or camps. Many of them, like Rosala and her husband Abubakar, have been here for the last fourteen years.
It’s not easy for Rosala and her husband to make a living – and they mainly depend on government rations for food. Rosala supplements their income by making baskets. Abubakar gets fishing work whenever he can. But it’s tough to find work – and the locals can be resentful when those who’ve moved in bring wages down. Says Abubakar:
‘In fishing they (the locals) will only allow us to do certain kinds of jobs and not ones that bring in lots of fish or make money’¦ If we start to speak back or argue with them – or get the help from a minister or the police – then as soon as these officials leave they will threaten us and say – what would you do if we burnt your house down? – the threat is always there’¦’
If they did go back to their old home, there is the problem of landmines. Experts believe that almost a million mines were laid in just one small area of Sri Lanka during the war. These are painstakingly being cleared. But it’s a long, expensive process, with many casualties along the way. Since the year 2000, over five hundred people have been injured and over 100 killed by landmines.
In the northern Jaffna peninsula, there is a high military presence – both in the town and on the coast. The Sri Lankan army has bases covering thirty per cent of the peninsula. Thousands of people can’t return home as their houses are inside these high security zones. It’s a situation that breeds resentment – especially for the people left in camps and welfare centres with extremely poor conditions.
Mr Ganeshan, President of Association of Welfare Centres, says: ‘The life in the welfare centres today is completely destroying them – that’s what’s happening. It’s only if they are given the chance to live normally that they can progress. If this continues, the children who are being born today – or even those who are ten today – will join the struggle and the fighting will continue.’
One street in Jaffna town – once home to several families – has recently been handed back to its residents. Building work has started. People are trying to get back their normal lives. Mr and Mrs Inbam live in the street – but unlike others they can’t think about repairing their home yet. Every day the Sri Lankan army lets them walk past their house on there way to the beach where they earn their living from the sea. But they’re not allowed to live in it. It’s a huge strain on both of them – and very frustrating.
‘We have worked so hard and what do we see – nothing,’ says Mr Inbam. ‘To put it in a nutshell we have absolutely nothing left – no possessions – it’s because of this war – before we were displaced we had everything.’
Traditionally the needs of internally displaced people have been seen as a matter solely within the sovereign preserve of states. But in recent years the number of displaced people has overtaken the number of refugees and increasingly, the international community is no longer willing to stand by while innocent civilians are caught in the cross fire.
‘It’s also in their interest to help,’ stresses Jan Egeland. ‘Because in a world where there is so much insecurity and so much displacement there will be also more conflict. There may also be more terrorism. It’s a vicious circle.’
As Mrs Inbam puts it: ‘When I return to my home it will be the happiest day of my life – nothing could make me more happy.’
Click here to visit the website of the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and here to visit UNHCR. World Refugee Day is 20 June. Download the World Refugee Day Information Kit
The International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) is a network of more than 1.200 non-governmental organizations in 60 countries, working for a global ban on Landmines. Read ICBL’s Landmine Monitor on the situation in Sri Lanka. The Government has promised a Mine-free North-East by the end of 2006.
Visit Peace Process of Sri Lanka, the website of the Government of Sri Lanka’s Secretariat for Co-ordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP), which features a time line of the peace process. The Tamil Eelam News Service provides news from the perspective of the Tamil rebels.
Go here to visit the Millennium Development Goals website.
An earlier Life programme, At the End of a Gun, reported on how armed conflict destroys women’s lives in Sri Lanka.