In terms of both the absolute numbers and the proportion of population, conflict-induced displacement of people in Sri Lanka is one of the largest in the world. In the recent confrontation between the LTTE and the government forces that has gained intensity since August 2006, nearly 460,000 persons have been displaced. And the numbers are increasing. This does not include a similar number uprooted by the tsunami that had struck in December 2004, and the 20,000 refugees who fled to India in the past year. Many of them are multiply-displaced. Further, these numbers do not include "night IDPs" who spend their nights elsewhere, far from their homes, fearing violence from armed groups. Displacement is endemic, especially in the conflict-prone districts of Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Amparai, Mannar, Vavuniya, Mullaitivu, Kilinochchi and Jaffna. The displacement trend shows that there is little movement between the LTTE-controlled and the Government-controlled areas, but that the movement is largely within them. The displaced include not just Tamils, but also Muslims and Sinhalas. Tamils, however, are the worst affected and greatest in numbers.
People flee their homes either to avoid indiscriminate bombing or shelling or after losing their means of livelihood in the conflict zones or to escape conscription. The UN Secretary-General's Representative on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, Walter Kälin, identified physical security as the predominant concern of the IDPs. They trek long distances to save their lives. There is always "a pervasive sense of fear and uncertainty." It is not that their lives are better after the flight. IDP camps are usually overcrowded resulting in a severe strain on resources, sanitation, public infrastructure like schools and places of worship. These camps are also fertile grounds for recruitment by armed groups. According to recent WHO estimates, about two per cent of the IDPs are mentally disturbed; women are affected more than men. Breakdown of traditional family structure is also prevalent among the displaced.
Ironically, the IDPs are used by both parties to serve their interests. The LTTE use the displaced people as 'human shields' to stall the advance of government forces. The government uses the IDPs as 'tools of honour' to show to the outside world that "all is well." To prove this point, people are generally prevented from fleeing the area. Even when they manage to escape, the IDPs are forced to resettle in those areas from where they fled, disregarding international protection standards. Destroyed homes and mine-infested lands greet the returnees. Moreover, most of the lands left by the internally displaced are taken over either by the LTTE or by the Sri Lankan Army. It is for this reason that many IDPs prefer local integration in the areas to which they have fled for safety rather than return to their places of origin. The prospects of their return are thus directly related to the prospects for durable peace.
Managing IDPs is a major humanitarian challenge. In this regard, both antagonists have to look at the issue in a holistic manner. Unfortunately, relief and resettlement of the displaced are guided by electoral and other political considerations. Strictly adherence to the 'Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement' should take precedence. In 2002, the GOSL adopted the 'Guiding Principles' in its 'National Framework for Relief, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction.' This "Triple R" strategy, however, was given the go-by as conflict resurfaced. Next, a nodal ministry should be made responsible for the welfare of the displaced rather than involving a swarm of departments. Secondly, relief organizations should be allowed free access to the displaced. Most importantly, their safety should be assured by the antagonists. Unfortunately, relief agencies are viewed with suspicion by both the LTTE and GOSL as agents of the 'other.' Third, the provision of livelihood to the IDPs should be given priority. Gradually the rights due to a normal citizen should be bestowed on them signaling that they are not "strangers in their own land." This, in the long run, would restore the confidence of the displaced. Fourth, relocation or resettlement of the displaced should be voluntary and not forced through prematurely. Although the Sri Lankan government had drafted, with the assistance of UNHCR, detailed guidelines on "confidence building and stabilisation measures" for IDPs in the north and east, implementation on the ground is yet to commence. Finally, any permanent resettlement of those displaced can only be ensured after the settlement of the protracted ethnic conflict.