IDP's in Sri Lanka

17 Aug, 1999    ·   245

Zarien Ahmed says the increasing number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDP's) has set in motion a vicious circle of displacement, poverty, unemployment, etc and consequently an adverse impact on the quality of life and the human development index

One of the world’s most acute and growing problems is the increasing number of  internally displaced persons (IDPs) or internal refugees. What is more alarming is the fact that the number of IDPs now exceeds that of refugees. In 1990 there were 17 million IDPs as compared to refugees. In 1994, the number had soared to 27 million internally displaced persons and surpassed the total number of refugees which stood at 26 million worldwide. The reason behind this substantial increase in the number of  internal refugees is threefold :



First, there has been an increase in the number of internal conflicts as compared to the classic inter-state conflict.



Second, There is immense donor fatigue among host countries, which are increasingly taking measures to obstruct asylum seekers.



Third, there is increasing emphasis by developed States on the ‘right to remain’ in the country of origin and insistence on voluntary repatriation.



The Sri Lankan situation reflects this global reality. At present there are 1, 63528 refugees living in Europe , Canada , Australia and India (63528). The number of IDPs stands at a staggering 6.7 lakhs.



The refugees in Sri Lanka both internal as well as external are  products  of  the ongoing ethnic strife. The conflict between the majority Sinhalese  and the minority Sri Lankan Tamils has been brewing  for the past fifty years, with violent outbreaks on several occasions. However, since 1983 the violence has intensified between the armed forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE). and reached intractable proportions. This has led to displacement of people at an unprecedented scale. The conflict had not spared any section in the ethnic mosaic of Sri Lankan society.



The substantial rise in the number of IDPs in Sri Lanka can be attributed to the following factors. Initially the Indian response towards refugees was warm. However India began to feel the pressures of hosting refugees in poor country. The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in May1991 further changed India ’s attitude towards Sri Lankan refugees. Western countries are also not very responsive to their concerns anymore. In November last year 450 Sri Lankan refugees were being deported from Australia after the Federal Court rejected their appeal against a Government move to deprive them of their humanitarian visas. Sri Lankans entering Australia were granted temporary humanitarian visas. Consecutive governments had granted the visas, but the Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock decided to stop the programme in 1997.  In other Western countries as well, there is growing resentment towards Sri Lankan Tamil refugees. In a situation where they are not welcomed either in the western countries or in neighbouring India , and the end of the conflict is nowhere in sight, they are forced to remain uprooted in their own country.



Tamils, Muslims, as well as the majority  Sinhalese  have all become uprooted  in the wake of violence. They were forced to move out of their original place of residence, which were conflict areas to settle in safer places.



On June 29, this year, the entire village of 913 families in Vidathalthivu became internally displaced when the latest operation of the Sri Lankan army spilled over to this fishing village.LTTE cadre came to the village and asked  the people to leave within an hour because they planned to fire artillery shells from the village. The army would retaliate, therefore the people had to move to safer areas. Some of them went further North,while others went to the Government controlled Mannar. Residents of the Muhamadiya Transit camp in Puttalam suffered the same experience in November 1990 when they were asked to vacate rheir village within 24 hours. They trekked for 25 miles on terrain which was supposed to be mined, to reach this camp which hosted the first batch of internally displaced Muslims of Sri Lanka.



The government spends an estimated rupees 2.7 billion each year on  resettlement and rehabilitation of the  in the conflict areas. Providing dry rations itself costs 171 millions per month. Another major expense is that of transport and logistics. The ongoing confrontations along the
Kandy Jaffna Highway
  has resulted in the blockade of  rail and road transport. Thus, total dependence on the eastern shipping route has made the task of the Government in providing relief more expensive. With the numbers increasing, the State may have to allocate more resources for the purpose.



The increasing number of Internally displaced persons therefore has two serious effects on the Sri Lankan state and society. It adds further strains on the Sri Lankan economy which has already  battered after 16 years of intractable conflict. Secondly, it has set in motion a vicious circle of displacement, poverty, unemployment, malnutrition, disease and death and consequently an adverse impact on the quality of life and the human development index.