A quarter of a million Sri Lankans now being held in de facto detention camps are facing a humanitarian disaster as monsoon rains threaten to flood camps, said Amnesty International on Thursday.
Months after the government of Sri Lanka set up camps in Vavuniya District in the north-east of the country following the end of the conflict there, the authorities are still failing to deliver basic services.
Camps remain overcrowded and lack basic sanitation facilities and heavy rains in September saw rivers of water cascading through tents with camp residents wading through overflowing sewage.
“People living in these camps are desperate to leave. The government must ensure that the displaced are treated with dignity. They have a right to protection and must be consulted on whether they wish to return to their homes or resettle,” said Yolanda Foster, Amnesty International’s Sri Lanka expert, who is in contact with relatives of people inside the camp
“The provision of protection, assistance and return is not an act of charity but a basic right,” said Yolanda Foster.
A recent escapee from Chettikulam camp told Amnesty International how some women had to give birth in front of strangers without privacy.
“Medical staff are only available in the camps 9 to 5,” the escapee said. “People start queuing for medical assistance from early morning… how can you expect a lady who is pregnant to stand in a queue for hours? If the war has ended why doesn’t the government let these people out?”
Amnesty International has also received reports that the military is blocking release attempts by the civilian administration.
Since the war ended in May 2009, thousands of people detained in camps have been subjected to ‘screening’ processes by the security forces.
While screening processes need to be followed to ensure that people are not members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) they should follow proper procedures and not be used as an excuse for collective punishment.
There are separate detention facilities for approximately 10,000 ex-LTTE combatants.
The government has widely publicised recent releases from the camps yet Amnesty International has received reports that many are simply transfers to other camps where the displaced may be subjected to rescreening by local authorities.
Amnesty International has previously raised concerns about the lack of independent monitoring and lack of accountability for the screening process.
The Sri Lankan government must involve the displaced in plans for return or resettlement. It should also facilitate the assistance of independent humanitarian organisations.
“Freedom of movement is now critical. The international community and the government of Sri Lanka can no longer ignore the voices of camp detainees to be allowed to leave,” said Yolanda Foster.
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.