Sri Lankan government aims to resettle the remaining 100,000 war displaced Tamil civilians, currently housed in temporary shelter camps in Vavuniya district, by April after missing a self-imposed deadline to move everyone out of camps by end-January, IRIN, a news agency under the jurisdiction of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNCHA) reported on Monday.
It quoted Rishad Bathiudeen, Minister of Resettlement and Disaster Relief Services as saying that the delay was due in part to incomplete demining activities in northern areas. “It has impeded the resettlement process. The area needs to be completely safe for the people to resettle,” Bathiudeeen told IRIN.
On December 11 a three member high level delegation sent by President Mahinda Rajapaksa had assured New Delhi that his Government is committed to resettle all internally displaced persons (IDPs) of Tamil origin by the end of January. In the course of their interaction with their interlocutors in New Delhi it also agreed on establishing an institutional mechanism to resolve issues relating to fishermen.
The three-member delegation consisted of Senior Adviser to the President, Basil Rajapaksa; Secretary to the President, Lalith Weeratunga, and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.
During the two-day visit, the delegation interacted with the then National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan, Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao and Defence Secretary Pradeep Kumar. Indications are the troika is expected to visit New Delhi once again shortly.
A joint statement issued at the end of the visit had said the Sri Lankan side had detailed the steps initiated to resettle the IDPs in their original places of habitation.
“Both sides agreed on the need for political arrangements which would serve the legitimate interests and meet the aspirations of all Sri Lankan citizens. The Sri Lankan side reiterated the government’s commitment to a political process that would lead to lasting peace and reconciliation,” the statement had said.
India and Sri Lanka also agreed to take the Joint Statement on Fishing Arrangements into the realm of an institutional arrangement by agreeing to convene the Joint Working Group on Fishing Cooperation. According to sources work is in progress on the draft MoU.
IRIN quoted the secretary of the Ministry of Resettlement and Disaster Relief Services, ULM Halaldeen as conceding that there had been a delay in the resettlement process in the run-up to the presidential election on January 26.
However, he said all the IDPs should be resettled by the time the parliamentary election is held, and insisted they would be able to vote. “Come April, they all will be resettled in their own homes and leading more normal lives,” Halaldeen told IRIN. “This is a process and we are continuing to resettle people at our earliest,” he said.
As of February 5, there were more than 106,000 IDPs remaining in camps in the districts of Vavuniya, Mannar and Jaffna, according to the UN, citing government agents. About 160,000 IDPs have been returned to their districts of origin, while 29,060 people have been released from temporary camps into host families and elders’ homes.
More than 280,000 were displaced in the fighting and living in government camps soon after the war ended in May 2009.
At the same time, the latest report issued by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) warns of funding shortfalls from February for agencies operating in Menik Farm, the largest IDP camp.
The lack of funding is expected to affect services, including the maintenance of sanitation facilities, provision of food and education, it says in the report to 29 January.
It also says that most returnees have expressed satisfaction at restarting their lives in their areas of origin but notes several challenges, including insufficient basic services, transport limitations and damaged or destroyed property and shelters.
“Indications of tensions among communities arriving at different stages of the return process had surfaced, with the civil administration indicating that it would [be] strengthening its role to support resolution of disputes,” it says.
The IRIN says legislators representing Sri Lanka’s northeastern provinces also expressed concern over the practicality of resettlement initiatives.
As a result of these, IDPs would be grappling with “uninhabitable homes without the necessary facilities to help them lead a normal life”, Tamil National Alliance (TNA) parliamentarian, Suresh Premachandran has been quoted as saying “It will take at least two years to resettle people properly with their infrastructure needs being met.”