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Q+A – Why are aid workers concerned about Sri Lanka’s camps?

[AlertNet, Friday, 10 July 2009 15:04 No Comment]

Sri Lanka has asked aid agencies to scale down operations on the Indian Ocean island now that a 25-year insurgency by the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has ended.

The move has raised concerns among aid groups about the care of some 300,000 people, mostly Tamils, who were uprooted during the last phase of the fighting that ended in May and are now being held in government-run camps.

Although the government has announced its intention to dismantle the so-called "welfare villages" as soon as possible and plans to return the displaced in six months, aid workers are worried about Sri Lanka’s treatment of its displaced.

Here are some questions and answers about conditions in the camps.

WHAT ARE AID WORKERS’ CONCERNS?

ACCESS TO THE CAMPS:

Aid workers have complained about a lack of access to displacement camps which are run by the military, whose troops have been accused by rights groups of abuses against the Tamil population. Many aid workers view the government’s call for a scaling down of aid operations as a deliberate move to prevent outsiders from witnessing conditions inside the camps. Aid workers say the lack of free movement for the displaced in the camps is tantamount to arbitrary detention. Aid workers and rights groups are also concerned about violations such as abductions and disappearances that are reportedly taking place in the camps.

RESETTLEMENT:

Aid workers are concerned the Colombo government intends to keep the camps running indefinitely despite its vow to resettle most of the displaced in six months. They say the government has been pushing for semi-permanent structures to be built in the camps and are worried the government may use slow progress on de-mining as a pretext for stopping people from going back home. Rights groups say the government needs to have a more comprehensive plan to return and resettle all internal refugees in the country, including those displaced in previous phases of the conflict.

Sri Lanka says it is in control of the refugee situation and that it needs time to weed out potential Tamil Tiger infiltrators hiding in the camps. The government is wary of aid agencies it has complained helped the Tigers in the past.

RESTRICTIONS:

Many aid workers say their ability to work continues to be hampered by the government denying visas to colleagues, interfering in recruitment and setting out rules that lead to a quick turnover of staff. According to a report in The Times, the government has imposed a 0.9 per cent tax on all funding for aid groups, saying the tax is designed to crack down on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that abused Sri Lankan law and squandered their funds on their own staff after the tsunami.

Some aid workers have even questioned whether it is worth staying in Sri Lanka given the restrictions on their activities, saying Sri Lanka is not an aid dependent country.

WHAT HAS PRESIDENT MAHINDA RAJAPAKSA SAID ABOUT THE CAMPS, THE FACILITIES IN THE CAMPS AND PLANS FOR THE DISPLACED?

"I would say the condition in our camps is the best any country has," Rajapaksa told The Hindu newspaper in an interview. "We supply water. There is a problem with lavatories. That is not because of our fault. The money that comes from the EU and others, it goes to the NGOs and the U.N. They are very slow; disbursing money is very slow.

"We supply the water tanks. We have spent over 2 billion rupees. Giving electricity, giving water, now we are giving televisions to them. They have telephone facilities. Schools have been established. Some of the leaders are using mobile phones. I had a special meeting on the disposal of waste. I sent a team of specialists to see how mosquitoes can be eradicated.

"We know there are shortcomings. Slowly, we have to overcome them. In some camps there are no problems. What these people I sent told me: they are satisfied with the housing, shelter. They have undergone much worse conditions earlier [when they were under the LTTE's control]. Their problem is movement, freedom of movement. Since there are security concerns, I don’t know how to do that immediately.

"I said on 20th of May that as soon as possible, we must send them to places where they can stay. My problem is that we have to get the certificate of de-mining from the U.N. We have already sent people back to several places. As soon as we get the clearance, I’m ready to do that. But before that I must get the clearance from the U.N. about the de-mining. We can’t send them back to a place where there are just jungles. Every square centimetre has been mined by the LTTE. If something happens, I am responsible.

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