Sri Lanka: bulk of refugees still in transit camps

Most Sri Lankan refugees resettled from large military-run camps since the end of a 25-year civil war in May are still in transit facilities while de-mining work is finished, the government said on Friday.

Human Rights and Disaster Management Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe said 70 percent of the more than 280,000 refugees who fled the final phase of the government’s war against the Tamil Tigers had been relocated from the main camps, which drew widespread criticism.

"The bulk of them are still in temporary facilities. It’s a transit camp until the de-mining is completed. There is a quite a number in Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu," he said, referring to two former rebel-held districts in northern Sri Lanka.

On Tuesday, the government gave all those resident in the main camps permission to leave temporarily to find work or seek out relatives, answering months of international criticism over freedom of movement restrictions.

The government had earlier resisted pressure to let people out, saying they first had to be screened to ensure they did not have links to the Tamil Tiger rebels and their home areas cleared of landmines.

The refugees’ situation has grown into a big political issue since the end of the war, especially now that former army commander General Sarath Fonseka will challenge incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa at an election due on Jan. 26.

Although Fonseka was frequently criticised by opposition parties as he led the army to victory, they have since courted him as a common candidate for a patchwork coalition designed solely to defeat Rajapaksa.

In May, Sri Lanka crushed the Tigers and ended their quarter-century war to create a separate nation for the Tamil ethnic minority on the island of 21 million people, three-quarters of whom are from the Sinhalese ethnic group.

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