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Asia

The difficulties of resettling displaced persons in northern Sri Lanka

More than a year after the civil war came to an end in Sri Lanka, a kind of normalcy has returned to the island. More than 200,000 people who fled heavy fighting in the north have meanwhile gone back to their villages.

Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) got special identity cards for casting their vote in this year's elections

Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) got special identity cards for casting their vote in this year's elections

After years as a displaced person Nirmalan has arrived back in his home village in northern Sri Lanka's Manar district. The 33 year-old Tamil of slight build is grateful for what he has got. Aid organizations built the hut where he is living with six family members, and a toilet. The Indian government paid for their tin roof. The World Food Program provided food for six months, and UNICEF will support the family with another 25,000 rupees (175 euros).

In December, nearly 127,000 Tamil refugees were finally allowed to leave squalid and overrun government camps where they had been detained since the country's civil war ended

In December, nearly 127,000 Tamil refugees were finally allowed to leave squalid government camps where they had been detained

About 280,000 displaced persons were in camps at the end of the civil war. Now, they are being resettled. Joachim Schwarz, who coordinates the work of the German aid group Welthungerhilfe in Sri Lanka, says: "We are helping people to start again by building emergency shelters for them. And we are providing them with ways to earn their livelihoods by so-called cash-for-work programs."

Wells need to be cleaned, seeds and farming tools need to be distributed, roads need to be repaired. Less than half of all internal refugees can just leave the camps and return to their villages. Most villages have been destroyed in years of civil war, and large parts of the north are still heavily mined. So many people are staying with their relatives until the situation improves.

Staying with relatives

Dharma Raja is the head of such a host family. He has taken in his two brothers and their wives, children and grandchildren. He enjoys sharing with them, he says, but it wouldn't be possible without the support of aid organizations such as Welthungerhilfe. Joachim Schwarz adds:

"As part of a EU-financed project, we are assisting 500 families. But there are many more: In Vavuniya district, it is estimated that 30,000 displaced persons are staying with about 7,000 to 8,000 host families."

Other aid organizations also point to a lack of funding. In marked contrast to the situation in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean Tsunami, they have not exactly been overwhelmed with offers of help and donations since the end of the civil war. In addition, the Sri Lankan government, which regarded aid groups as the rebels' accomplices during the war, has been keeping them at arm's length, which hasn't made their work any easier.

Larger political implications

Joachim Schwarz emphasizes that the situation is precarious. "You have to see it in the larger picture of the ethnic conflict as well." After all, it is essential for the returning Tamils that they are given reasonable living conditions so that they feel they are being treated as Sri Lankan citizens, who in the long term are going to have a stake in the new society which is being built here.

About 280,000 displaced persons were in camps at the end of the civil war

About 280,000 displaced persons were in camps at the end of the civil war

Although the Sri Lankan government is committed to rebuilding the north, the needs of the refugees have been neglected, says Paikiasothy Saravannamuttu from the Center for Policy Alternatives. "We are talking largely about farmers and fishermen. Their livelihoods involve getting access to their land and getting proper access to the sea to go fishing. Now land is a major problem because of high security zones, because of military occupation of the land, because of the loss of title deeds."

The opportunities open to aid organizations are clearly limited. Eventually it will be up to the government to decide how quickly the thousands of displaced persons can be reintegrated into society and whether the wounds of old can be healed.

Author: Sabina Matthay / tb
Editor: Grahame Lucas

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