(New York) – The Sri Lankan government should immediately release the more than 280,000 internally displaced Tamil civilians held in detention camps in northern Sri Lanka, Human Rights Watch said today.
The government, in violation of international law, has since March 2008 confined virtually all civilians displaced by the fighting between government forces and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in detention camps, euphemistically called “welfare centers” by the government. Only a small number of camp residents, mainly the elderly, have been released to host families and institutions for the elderly.
“Keeping several hundred thousand civilians who had been caught in the middle of a war penned in these camps is outrageous,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Haven’t they been through enough? They deserve their freedom, like all other Sri Lankans.”
The United Nations reported that as of July 17, 2009, the government was detaining 281,621 people in 30 military-guarded camps in the four northern districts of Vavuniya, Mannar, Jaffna, and Trincomalee. Camp residents are allowed to leave only for emergency medical care, and then frequently only with military escort. Inside the camps, humanitarian workers are prohibited, on threat of being barred from the camps, from discussing with residents the fighting in the final months of the conflict or possible human rights abuses.
Premkumar, 44 years old, told Human Rights Watch that he, his wife, and their 3-year-old daughter have been confined to a camp since they escaped the war zone in mid-May. He has been allowed out only once, when he managed to obtain a referral to a hospital.
“The way I see it, we are not internally displaced persons, we are internally displaced prisoners,” Premkumar said. “We used to be in a prison controlled by [LTTE leader] Prabhakaran. Now we are in a prison controlled by the government.”
In Kalimoddai and Sirukandal camps in Mannar district, established more than a year ago, some residents have been granted permission to leave the camp for short periods during the day. In these camps, they have to register with the military twice a day. Human Rights Watch has received reports that if a person fails or is late to register, the military may apply punitive measures, such as forcing the person to stand still under the sun for a period of time or to perform manual labor.
Sri Lanka’s policy of confining the displaced to detention camps has been widely condemned. On May 15, for example, Walter Kälin, the UN secretary-general’s representative on internally displaced persons, said: “Prolonged internment of such persons would not only amount to arbitrary detention but it also aggravates the humanitarian situation needlessly.”
In response to domestic and international criticism, President Mahinda Rajapaksa has tried to justify the detention policy by claiming that anyone in the camps could be a security threat. The government has sought to play down the situation, insisting that the displaced civilians will be quickly resettled. In May, the government said it would resettle 80 percent of them by the end of this year. Now the Minister of Foreign Affairs says the goal is 60 percent. The government has not provided any concrete resettlement plans, however, and displaced persons have not received any information about when they might be allowed to return home.
The military has reportedly removed several thousand camp residents for alleged membership or support of the LTTE, and transferred them to rehabilitation centers for LTTE fighters or to Colombo, the capital, for further interrogation. In many cases, the authorities have failed to inform relatives remaining in the camps about the fate and whereabouts of those removed, raising concerns of possible ill-treatment or enforced disappearance. The order to humanitarian workers not to talk to camp residents limits their ability to protect people from abuse.
While the Sri Lankan authorities are entitled to screen persons leaving the war zone to identify Tamil Tiger combatants, international law prohibits arbitrary detention and unnecessary restrictions on the right to freedom of movement. This means that anyone taken into custody must be promptly brought before a judge and charged with a criminal offense or released. Although human rights law permits restrictions on movement for security reasons, the restrictions must have a clear legal basis, be limited to what is necessary, and be proportionate to the threat.
“Vague promises about the future release of the people illegally locked up in detention camps are no justification for keeping them there,” said Adams. “Every day in the camp is another day that the government is violating their rights.”
The situation of camp residents is aggravated by inadequate living conditions in the camps. Many are overcrowded, some holding twice the number recommended by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. According to the UN, there is a shortage of latrines and access to water is inconsistent, causing hygiene problems. In June alone, health officials recorded more than 8,000 cases of diarrhea, as well as hundreds of cases of hepatitis, dysentery, and chickenpox.
Numerous reports indicate that camp residents are getting increasingly frustrated with the inadequate food, overcrowding, and inability to visit relatives in adjacent camps or elsewhere. In late June, they held at least two protests in the camps, which were dispersed by the security forces.
The government has effectively sealed off the detention camps from outside scrutiny. Human rights organizations, journalists, and other independent observers are not allowed inside, and humanitarian organizations with access have been forced to sign a statement that they will not disclose information about the conditions in the camps without government permission. On several occasions, the government expelled foreign journalists and aid workers who had collected and publicized information about camp conditions, or did not renew their visas.
On July 24, the executive board of the International Monetary Fund approved a US$2.6 billion loan to Sri Lanka, granting the government an “exceptional level of access to Fund resources.” Several countries – including the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Argentina – abstained from the vote, reflecting concern about human rights violations during the conflict and continued abuses, including mistreatment of internally displaced persons. Installments of the loan will have to be approved every three months.
“The world recognizes that Sri Lanka needs money to rebuild the country,” said Adams. “But the government’s treatment of its Tamil population in recent months has drained much of the sympathy for the challenges it faces. The government needs to change course or expect greater international scrutiny in the future.”