Expert Opinion

5 steps to help displaced Sri Lankans find solutions

Almost five years after it defeated the insurgent Tamil Tigers, the government of Sri Lanka projects an image of peace and ‘business as usual’ to the outside world, attracting tourists to its idyllic beach resorts while downplaying the grievances of tens of thousands of its citizens living in the north and east.

In a new report, IDMC estimates that up to 90,000 of the over 800,000 people forced to flee during Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war between 1983 and 2009 remain internally displaced, with tens of thousands more having returned, but unable to find long term solutions.

One third of the internally displaced people (IDPs) cannot return because their homes and land remain occupied by the all-powerful military – whose presence has been justified by the government as a means of preventing a resurgence of the conflict.

The military itself controls much of the local administration in the north and east. Random visits and interrogations leave IDPs and those who have returned home in a state of fear. With many male family members killed, disappeared or detained, women and girls in particular are vulnerable to sexual harassment and violence from military personnel.

Military activities squeeze IDPs out of the market, and off their land

The military has expanded its activities in recent years to include agriculture and tourism, creating a new set of problems. For example, military-operated farms, stores and hotels have provided fierce competition to small farms and businesses run by civilians including those displaced by the civil war, who find themselves squeezed out of the market.

Under the Land Acquisition Act the Sri Lankan government can take over private land if it intends to use it for ‘public purposes’. The government last year began to claim land already occupied by the military yet, ironically, the ‘public purposes’ for which it was intended included the establishment of an army-run holiday resort. More than 2,000 long-term IDPs originating from this land took the issue to court, but a decision remains pending to this day.

Add to these challenges other factors such as drought and floods which regularly destroy crops in the area, and the situation becomes even more difficult. It is unsurprising that household debt has been on the rise in the war-affected regions, and that most IDPs, and large numbers of those who have returned, remain dependent on aid.

5 key steps for real solutions

Next month the Human Rights Council will meet to review Sri Lanka’s rights record. As in the past, this is an excellent opportunity for the UN to call on the Sri Lankan government, along with its humanitarian and development partners, to take key steps to ensure that civilians displaced by war can find much-needed solutions to their prolonged displacement:

1. Adopt an IDP policy which meets international standards: Sri Lanka still has no comprehensive law or policy in place to deal with internal displacement. While the Ministry of Resettlement last year published a draft policy which contains a number of useful elements such as measures to restore land ownership and employment opportunities to IDPs, it fails in others, such as ensuring the participation of IDPs in the policy development process, for example. The policy needs therefore to be revised to bring it in line with international standards, and then be swiftly adopted and implemented.

2. Defuse tensions: Building on the recommendations of its Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, the government should initiate a meaningful reconciliation process between the country’s Sinhala, Tamil, and Muslim communities to prevent further tensions between them, in particular those who have been displaced. This should include the setting up of a mechanism to resolve complex land issues. The government also needs to take a clear stand against recent attacks by extremist Buddhists against Muslim religious sites and business properties in different parts of the country.

3. Restore land to IDPs: A true post-war transition will require a reduction in the military presence in the north and east and for military occupied land to be returned to IDPs. Where this is not possible, adequate compensation must be given. The local administration needs to be fully controlled by civilian officials instead of the military.

4. Reinvigorate employment: As opposed to focusing all of its resources into large infrastructure projects in the north and east, the government must also reinvigorate employment levels in these areas by fostering small businesses and support the creation of long-term employment for those in need, specifically, current and former IDPs.

5. Assess the most pressing concerns of those in need: Together with its humanitarian and development partners the government must make sure that the Joint Needs Assessment planned in all districts affected by displacement includes all aspects relevant to the situation of current and former IDPs. Only then will the government and its partners gain a true picture of the needs of Sri Lanka’s displaced and be able to address those needs in a comprehensive way.

These are important steps towards addressing the grievances that lie at the root of the country’s civil war and to paving the way to long-term peace in Sri Lanka, so all communities can truly celebrate their independence together.    

For more information, see IDMC’s page for Sri Lanka.