The largest refugee camp in over four decades in south Asia, Menik Farm Welfare Centre, set up in 2009 for the war-displaced Tamils of the Northern Province in Sri Lanka, is to be wound up in June.
The camp, which once spread across a 500-hectare expanse outside Vavuniya, accommodated close to three lakh Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). About 6,000 IDPs remain in the camp, about 300 km from Colombo. Most of the IDPs hail from the mine-contaminated areas of the adjoining Mullaitivu district, where the government forces wiped out the Tamil Tigers in May 2009.
IDPs not keen to leave
“What will we then do,” asked one of the inmates, as the Indian joint parliamentary delegation, led by Leader of the Opposition Sushma Swaraj, visited the camp on Wednesday morning for a first-hand study of the situation there. Some of the inmates, while stating that they wanted to get out of the camp, were not sure how to make a living outside.
The IDPs mainly raised two issues with the Indian delegation. One is related to housing. “Where will we live after we leave this place,” asked an inmate. These residents are not entitled to the 50,000 houses that India is assisting in building in Sri Lanka, nor are they part of any other scheme. “From my interactions, I came to the conclusion that these people did not have homes even earlier,” said T.K. Rangarajan of the CPI(M). It possibly did not matter then as there was some kind of livelihood.
Now finding a job — any job — is a big problem. This is the story of the entire north: the issue of shelter, and that of livelihood. The problem gets compounded because the Army is intricately involved in economic activity in the North.
“Things better now”
“Things are much, much better than before,” said E.M. Sudarsana Natchiappan, who is coming to Sri Lanka for a third time since the conclusion of the war. “In 2009, the scene here was pathetic. This is a sea change,” he said.
In all their interactions, the MPs delegation, especially those from Tamil Nadu — M. Krishnaswamy, Mr. Natchiappan, Mr. Rangarajan, Manicka Tagore, NSV Chitthan — asked people how they went about their daily lives, and wanted to know if the people were as keen as their leaders are on the issue of a political settlement.
The Ms. Swaraj-led team handed over equipment for a government hospital, bicycles and dedicated a new vocational training centre and a school. The delegation also handed over homes constructed with India's assistance to the IDPs.
The Sri Lankan civil society has commended the Leader of the Opposition distributing assistance. Asked about this, a senior official said External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna had requested Ms. Swaraj to distribute the benefits, to which she readily agreed.