Hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the recent war in North East Sri Lanka and living in camps are being denied basic human rights including freedom of movement, said Amnesty International on Monday. The organization’s Secretary General, Irene Khan, launched the Unlock the Camps campaign at the start the organization’s International Council Meeting, a gathering of international delegates in Turkey.
Two months after the end of the fighting, the Sri Lankan authorities are still not addressing properly the needs of the newly displaced. The camps are overcrowded and unsanitary.
In addition, these are effectively detention camps. They are run by the military and the camp residents are prevented from leaving them; they are denied basic legal safeguards. The government’s claim that it needs to hold people to carry out screening is not a justifiable reason to detain civilians including entire families, the elderly and children, for an indefinite period.
Displaced people have even been prevented from talking to aid workers. With no independent monitors able to freely visit the camps, many people are unprotected and at risk from enforced disappearances, abductions, arbitrary arrest and sexual violence.
According to government figures, the fighting between the Sri Lankan army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) displaced over 409,000 people. At least 280,000 are displaced from areas previously under LTTE control. A dramatic influx of people fleeing the fighting and crossing to government controlled areas took place from March 2009.
The displaced people, including at least 50,000 children, are being accommodated in 41 camps spread over four districts. The majority of the displaced are in Vavuniya District where Manik Farm is the biggest camp.
When United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited some of the camps in May, he said: “I have travelled around the world and visited similar places, but this is by far the most appalling scene I have seen.”
While some progress had been made on providing basic needs, much still needs to be done on the right to health, food, water, family reunion and access to relatives.
Amnesty International has also called on the government of Sri Lanka to end restrictions on liberty and freedom of movement; ensure that camps are of a truly civilian nature and administered by civilian authorities, rather than under military supervisions; and give immediate and full access to national and international organizations and observers, including aid agencies, in order to monitor the situation and provide a safeguard against human rights violations.
The Sri Lankan government said on 21 May that the displaced will be resettled in 180 days. But very few have so far been allowed to return to their homes or to join friends or family elsewhere, and people remaining in the camps are not at liberty to leave camp premises.
Amnesty International is calling on the Sri Lanka government to end its policy of forcibly confining people to camps, which amounts to arbitrary detention. The Sri Lankan government must allow persons who require temporary shelter in these facilities to come and go freely.
With assistance and support from the international community and the involvement of displaced people themselves, the Sri Lankan government must set up clear benchmarks and timelines to ensure that displaced people can safely return home or find other durable solutions (such as relocation) as soon as possible.
As part of the Unlock the Camps campaign, Amnesty International is posting a video on Facebook, calling on the Sri Lankan government to allow freedom of movement and on the Government of India to monitor the aid pledged to the Sri Lankan government and to press for the immediate transfer of the management of the displaced people camps from the military to the civilian authorities.