Background Briefing

II. Protecting Displaced Persons

The renewed armed conflict in Sri Lanka has displaced more than 220,000 people.15 While some have moved in with relatives elsewhere in the country, many have gone to displaced persons camps or other places of refuge. Many survive in uncertain circumstances in LTTE-controlled areas. In addition, the country has a large population of persons displaced from fighting that occurred years earlier and from the devastating 2004 tsunami. Existing populations of displaced persons in Sri Lanka have always been especially vulnerable when hostilities resurface. In fact many displaced persons have been forced to flee from one location to the next on multiple occasions. The camps are typically miserable, with overcrowding and insufficient food, clean water, sanitation, health care or education facilities.

The Sri Lankan government retains primary responsibility for ensuring the protection and security of displaced persons within the country. The LTTE is responsible for the protection of displaced persons in areas under its control. In addressing the concerns of displaced persons, including those displaced by the 2004 tsunami, the government and the LTTE should act in accordance with the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.16

International humanitarian law prohibits parties to a conflict from displacing civilians under their control unless the security of the civilians involved or imperative military reasons so demand. Imperative military reasons cannot be justified by political motives or used to persecute the civilians involved. Whenever displacement occurs, the responsible party must take all possible measures to ensure that the displaced population receives satisfactory conditions of shelter, hygiene, health, safety and nutrition, and that family members are not separated. All parties must permit humanitarian assistance to reach the displaced population, as they must in respect of all civilians.17

A. Permit displaced persons freedom of movement

On August 3 about 45,000 civilians, Muslims and Tamils, together fled shelling in the Mutur area and headed by foot towards Killiveddy town. On the way, LTTE forces stopped them, claimed the road ahead was mined, and directed them towards Kiranthmunai in LTTE-controlled territory. At a point where the path narrowed, LTTE cadres separated the men from the women and children and forced the men to walk past two masked informants. The LTTE was apparently looking for members of Muslim armed groups or the Karuna group, which had been active in Mutur. At least 32 mostly young men, virtually all of them Muslims, were taken from the line, tied up with their hands behind their backs and pushed to the ground. After an altercation in which an LTTE cadre shot and killed one of the civilians, the army was alerted to the LTTE presence and immediately began to shell the area. The shelling killed LTTE cadres, including the LTTE commander and one of the masked informants, and civilians. Everyone fled the scene. Families became separated, including parents from their children.18 Most of the displaced persons eventually reached the camps in the vicinity of Kantale. An unconfirmed report from the camps placed the number still missing and believed killed or in LTTE custody at 60. The fate of the men taken away by the LTTE is unknown.

The UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement provide that every internally displaced person has the right to liberty of movement and the right to seek safety in another part of the country.19 In addition, no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention. Attacks or other acts of violence against internally displaced persons who do not or no longer participate in hostilities are prohibited in all circumstances. 20

Recommendation 8: The Sri Lankan armed forces and the LTTE must not place displaced persons at risk by hindering or redirecting their free movement except for valid security reasons.

B. Ensure the protection of all displaced persons regardless of ethnicity or religion

During the flight of the civilian population from the Mutur area in July, Muslims were refused refuge in schools in Sinhalese majority areas, even when the schools and mosques in Muslim areas were overflowing with people. Militants from the Sinhalese nationalist JVP party were believed to be primarily responsible for denying entry to non-Sinhalese displaced persons.21

The government and the LTTE have a responsibility to protect displaced persons in all areas under their control. They must take proactive measures to ensure that displaced persons are not discriminated against on the basis of ethnicity or religion. Specifically they must act to ensure that persons in flight are able to find safety.

International humanitarian law prohibits adverse distinctions made on the basis of language, religion, race, sex, and political opinion, among other criteria.22 All possible measures must be taken to ensure that displaced persons receive satisfactory conditions of shelter, hygiene, health, safety and nutrition, and that members of the same family are not separated.23

Recommendation 9: The Sri Lankan security forces and the LTTE should take proactive measures to ensure that the safety of displaced persons is not compromised by discrimination from their forces or local populations. Allegations of discrimination should be promptly investigated and addressed.

C. Do not forcibly return displaced persons

On September 7, the Sri Lankan government announced it had sent 170 buses to the camps in Kantale to transport the approximately 15,000 to 25,000 displaced persons back to their homes in and around Mutur. A government spokesman said that the request for buses came from the displaced persons themselves. While representatives for the displaced persons said that all wanted to return to their homes, many families wished to wait until they could be sure the area was safe and that renewed fighting was unlikely. Local sources reported that a Ministry of Defense official contacted by Muslim community leaders justified the returns at this time, saying that because the military had cleared Mutur of the LTTE, civilians should now be going back. The official said that government ministers would go to Mutur to ensure their safety and thought that it would be a disgrace for the government to keep Muslims from Mutur in Kantale as displaced persons.24

According to Refugees International, the population that had fled to Kantale was “forced back to Mutur on September 6 and 7 in a government organized return that in effect removed them from temporary shelters, however inadequate, in safe locations with basic services to temporary shelters with virtually no services in what remains a tense zone of potential conflict.” Refugees International found the returns to Mutur to be problematic because of the threat of renewed hostilities, the likelihood that unexploded ordnance remained, the lack of habitable homes or temporary shelter and the shortage of government and international emergency assistance.25 

The involuntary nature of the return can be seen in the government’s handling of Camp-98, a camp for 72 displaced families from Mutur at the al-Hikma Muslim school in Kantale. On Thursday, September 7, a member of the Mutur local authority and the Kantale divisional secretary notified the families that they should leave for Mutur by Friday morning and return the school keys to local authorities by noon that day. The families were also told that their access to assistance, including water, would be stopped on Friday.

On Friday, September 8, 24 families decided to return to Mutur and boarded the buses provided by the government. The remaining families remained concerned about the security situation in the Mutur area and so remained. At around 3 p.m., police led by the local police officer-in-charge and the Kantale divisional secretary entered Camp-98 and ordered the remaining families onto the government buses. The police allegedly forced the few families who had refused to move into the buses, dragging some of them and throwing their few possessions into the street in the rain. At this writing, the three remaining families of this group that had not returned, including two with children injured during the August 3 shelling of Mutur, were seeking refuge in the Kantale area.

On Saturday, September 9, representatives of the remaining displaced persons in Kantale said that the Trincomalee district government agent and the Kantale divisional secretary had refused to send water from the national water board, effectively cutting off water supplies to those displaced. Non-governmental organizations providing assistance in Kantale report that they have been asked to move to Mutur, which would deny those remaining in Kantale other forms of assistance as well.

The UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement provide that competent authorities have the primary duty and responsibility to establish conditions, as well as provide the means, which allow displaced persons “to return voluntarily, in safety and with dignity” to their homes. Special efforts should be made to ensure the full participation of displaced persons in the planning and management of their return.26

Recommendation 10: All returns of displaced persons should be genuinely voluntary, in safety and with dignity, in accordance with the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.

15 See United Nations, Department of Public Information, “Press Conference by Emergency Relief Coordinator,” August 30, 2006,

16 UN Commission on Human Rights, Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, UN Doc. E/CN.4/1998/53/Add.2 (1998), noted in Resolution 1998/50, Detailed recommendations on confidence building and stabilization measures for displaced persons in Sri Lanka can be found at UN High Commissioner for Refugees, “Humanitarian Plan of Action: Guidelines on Confidence Building and Stabilization Measures for IDPs in the North and East,” July 21, 2006.

17 ICRC, Customary International Humanitarian Law, rule 129, citing Protocol II, article 17(1).

18 HRW interview, Colombo, Aug. 22, 2006; see also UTHR(J), “Hubris and Humanitarian Catastrophe.”

19 See Guiding Principles on Displacement, principles 14 and 15.

20 Ibid., principles 10 and 2. The basis for these provisions can be found in principles of international humanitarian law.

21 Human Rights Watch interviews, Colombo, August 13 and 16, 2006

22 Geneva Conventions of 1949, common article 3.

23 ICRC, Customary International Humanitarian Law, rule 131, citing Protocol II, article 17(1).

24 See Sri Lanka Department of Information, “Mutur Muslims return to their homes,” September 7, 2006,; Bharatha Mallawarachi, “Sri Lanka to return 15,000 displaced people to their homes,” Associated Press, September 7, 2006; E-mail communications from human rights investigator, Kantale, September 2006.

25 Refugees International, “Sri Lanka: Forced Return Threatens Safety of Mutur Displaced,” September 11, 2006,

26 Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, principle 28.