Sri Lanka’s displaced people Part 2

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This was posted on  The Agonist on August 11, 2009.

IDP camps in Sri Lanka

The controversy over refugee camps in Sri Lanka continues.

On August 8, Amnesty International published a document calling on the Sri Lankan government to ensure:

  • Right to liberty and freedom of movement
  • Systematic and transparent registration for each displaced person
  • Family reunification
  • Civilian administration and humanitarian access

Conditions in the camps

Despite the claims of human rights groups and vocal sections of the Tamil diaspora, there has been sufficient access to the camps for a great number of eyewitness reports to be published.

Here is one at random that I have just seen from a Colombo blogger: ”many of the people at the camps are the most resilient and resourceful people I have ever met in this country. Vegetable patches growing outside tents would vouch for that. Or the fact that out of the thousands of people we met or passed by there, only a handful acted like beggars or freeloaders.”

Another says ”a lucrative trade has emerged. Liquor, groceries, can be purchased by those able to access remittances from abroad, the entire transaction going through the military or others in a position to profit from suffering.”

DBS Jeyaraj, a distinguished Sri Lankan Tamil journalist based in Canada, posted an eye-witness account of the camps on his blog and introduced it with the following remarks: ”Once again I ask readers not to engage in ethnic-orientated recrimination about the IDP plight. Please see a humanitarian tragedy as human beings and not as ethnic beings. I must also state that this account is not the conventional fact-finding report but more of a sincere attempt to describe first-hand impressions of existential reality.”

The observers summarised their main points:

  • Many families have relatives they can go and stay with but are forcibly kept in the camp.
  • Names of IDPs are not registered systematically.
  • Screening procedures are not transparent and information is not fed back to families.
  • Families are separated in different zones.
  • The camps are administered by armed military personnel, which seem more threatening than a civilian administration.
  • There should be a right to information.
  • Aid agencies should be able to talk to the displaced.

“On both sides of the road, you could see human waste. We stopped the vehicle to take photographs but the stench was too overpowering for us to stay long.”

”Three of our colleagues who wore open footwear while working in the camps were later infected with various foot diseases. One had to have his toe nails removed.”

“One of the Grama Niladharis (local government official) was stealing supplies, which should have gone to IDPs for other purposes. Community leaders among the IDPs who complained were threatened. Corruption, mainly involving Tamil officials, seems rampant in these camps.”

”We saw an official who works in Colombo who had come to see his mother. He drove a luxury vehicle and looked as if he was from the upper strata of Sri Lankan Tamil society. His mother looked like an impoverished, malnourished beggar”.

In The Island newspaper, Lilani Jayatilaka described a visit to the camps: ”Happily, and contrary to our expectations, most people in the camp seemed relatively cheerful. Their sudden release from the overriding fear of imminent death or disablement and the resultant sense of physical safety were reason enough for their relaxed demeanour. However, when we spoke to them, they all expressed an anxiety to get back to their homes and to their occupations. When I asked them whether their homes were still intact, they said that though their homes had been demolished, they would rebuild, once they got back home.”

”One little girl, who was about ten years old, said that, prior to coming to the camp, she had slept in a bunker to escape the shelling, and used to fall asleep through fear, though her stomach was empty. At that time, she had subsisted on just one meal a day. Now she had three meals a day.”

What many accounts from western journalists omit from their stories of genocide and concentration camps, is that many Sinhalese, as well as paying for rehabilitation through their taxes, are rallying around organising help for the IDPs on a personal humanitarian basis. Lilani Jayatilaka wrote: ”Young school leavers from Colombo, who had been instrumental in making all the organizational arrangements, as well as in parcelling the “friendship package’ for each family.”

I was surprised to read that even back in April, before the war was over, the banks had set up ATMs in the camps.

A delegation from Hatton National Bank, headed by Senior Manager Mr Teagharajah (a Tamil), provided water tanks.

US Assistant Secretary of State for Displaced Persons, Erik Schwartz, who visited the Zero Camp in the Menik Farm IDP camp on July 26, said the government has taken necessary steps to improve conditions in the IDP camps.

The editor of The Hindu reported on his visit to the Menik Farm camp: ”Conditions in these camps are much better than what has been depicted, mostly second-hand, that is, without visiting the camps, in western media reports. Moreover, they are visibly better than conditions in Sri Lankan refugee camps in India, which are still mostly inaccessible to journalists, researchers, and other outsiders. Basic needs, including education for the schoolchildren and vocational training for older boys and girls, are being met by the Sri Lankan government with assistance from the United Nations, a number of countries, including India, and more than 50 INGOs.”

A retired Sri Lankan editor, now a resident of Victoria in Australia, H Mahindapala, reported what he saw in the camps: ”They have schools and hospitals. One hospital is run by a team of Indian specialists ranging from cardiac surgeons to nephrologists. This hospital has an x-ray unit, a small operating theatre and large stocks of required medicine. All medicine ” you name it ” is distributed free. The Sri Lankan hospital is manned by 55 doctors who also run a mobile ambulance. Here too medicine is free.

A-Level students were given tuition by specialists teachers transported from leading elitist schools like Royal College and D. S. Senanayake College in Colombo. There is a bank in which the IDPs had deposited Rs.300 million. There is a post office and phone facilities to contact the outside world. Anybody is allowed to visit them. There is a fish and a meat shop. I did not see a single student carrying AK 47s. They were more interested in watching the 20-20 series on TV sets. Investigations were going on to find the relatives of orphans. There were two INGOs purifying the water pumped from the Malwatu Oya. An engineer of the Water Board, M. Manoharan (a Tamil in case you do not know) was supervising the operations of this water project. The IDPs were provided dry rations. Visitors and well-wishers from the south, mostly Sinhalese, bring loads of goodies for the IDPs. If you had a choice in which “concentration camp” would you like to be: the one run for Japanese in Australia or the one run by the Sri Lankan government?”

He quoted his local paper in Australia: ”It reported on page one that ”˜an estimated 300,000 people (are) going hungry in Victoria.’ It added on page 8: ”˜One in 10 Victorians are malnourished, go hungry or feel anxious because they cannot access healthy and safe food.’ For your edification may I state the 300,000 IDPs are not in such dire straits as the Victorians in affluent Australia?” Like the USA, Australia is a nation founded on genocide. Those Aborigines who survived live today in appalling conditions.

This is not to say Menik Farm is Club Mediterranean but it isn’t Belsen either (or Glastonbury or Woodstock).

Tamil News says ”reliable sources” claim foreigners are being misled by being shown the better facilities


From the outset, there have been fears about the health of the inmates. “With such a large number of people concentrated together, there is always the risk of waterborne disease with the rains,” said Laurent Sury, head of mission for Medecins Sans Frontieres. The monsoon lasts about four months, and even though the World Health Organization (WHO) says no large disease outbreaks have been reported so far, the risk factors for malaria and diarrhoea have increased.

The WHO has been working closely with the Sri Lankan Ministry of Health to ensure the health and welfare of IDPs. The WHO field unit in Vavuniya has been active in providing support on the ground in close coordination with the Regional Health services and Humanitarian partners.

The Colombo-based Medical Research Institute said in March that in six out of the then 13 camps, 25.5% of children suffered from global acute malnutrition, of whom 5.2% were severely malnourished and needed immediate rehabilitation with therapeutic food and treatment.

A recent press release by the UNHCR stated: ”No major disease outbreaks have been reported so far from the IDP centres despite concerns by UN and relief agencies of overcrowding.” There are currently concerns about skin complaints.

WHO said the Ministry of Health had taken precautions to deal with a possible malaria outbreak, with proper surveillance mechanisms at all camps. Until 19 June, only 29 cases of malaria had been reported, but health officials initiated a high alert when two cases were reported on 18 June from zone 4 in Menik Farm. Until 18 June 1,060 cases of dysentery and more than 5,000 cases of diarrhoea had been reported from the camps. There was a serious threat of waterborne diseases because so many people were living so close together.

The greatest disease outbreak initially was chickenpox, with more than 12,000 cases. Medical officers working with the displaced suspect that most of the chickenpox patients contracted the disease before they arrived in the camps. The UN reported that cases had since decreased and the number of new cases reported steadily declined from mid June.” The number of Hepatitis A cases also declined. A total of 2,139 cases were reported as at 12 June.

“Child health remains a key priority for the Government of Sri Lanka. We are committed to ensuring that the IDP population is protected,” said Secretary to the Ministry of Health, Athula Kahandaliyanage. On August 3rd a vaccination programme was launched. The campaign is being run by the Ministry of Health, UNICEF, World Health Organization (WHO), Sarvodaya (a local NGO) and other partners. “All the children between the age of six months and one year are given an additional dose of measles vaccine. Children between one to three years of age are given a dose of MR (measles) vaccine. All males and females between the age of 13 and 21 years who have not received the adult Td (Tetanus, Diphtheria) vaccine will be given a single dose of a Td (vaccine),” the WHO report stated.

“High-risk groups in the IDP camps (such as food handlers, health workers and workers working closely with patients) are being given Vipolysaccharide typhoid vaccine.” The children were also given a dose of vitamin A and de-worming tablets to raise resistance against other diseases and stem malnutrition.

At least 100 public health workers and 1,200 volunteers were expected to participate at 30 centres in Vavuniya District. An Indian medical team arrived in Sri Lanka on March 10 and set up a hospital in Pulmoddai, in Trincomalee district in the Eastern province to receive sick and injured IDPs being brought by Red Cross ships from the areas held by the LTTE.

India now feels that conditions have improved sufficiently to withdraw. Indian High Commissioner in Colombo, Alok Prasad, said in a letter addressed to Sri Lankan Health Minister Nimal Siripala De Silva: ”Since a very useful facility has been set up and the physical infrastructure of the hospital will remain in place, you may like to consider that the hospital may be taken over by the Ministry of Health on Aug.31, 2009”.

The Sri Lanka Sunday Times reported on 9 August that the Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA) Spokesperson Upul Gunasekara had said that the government should have appointed a proper administrator to oversee health services in the camps.  ”We have spoken to the President, the Director General of Health Services and the Secretary of Ministry of Health but no one is taking any action. Even the IDP health coordination centre is a mess as they do not have proper administrators to execute the work. The doctors who are working there are frustrated with the situation. If this continues even we will not be able to control the situation.”

Dr Gunasekara also complained that his members had not received their overtime pay. ”These doctors are undergoing a lot of hardship in the area and they should be the ones who are looked after. If doctors of the national hospital can be paid overtime payments I cannot understand why they don’t have money to pay these doctors who are working in Vavuniya.”