(New York) - The Sri Lankan government should end the illegal detention of nearly 300,000 ethnic Tamils displaced by the recently ended conflict in Sri Lanka, Human Rights Watch said today.
For more than a year, the Sri Lankan government has detained virtually everyone - including entire families - displaced by the fighting in the north in military-run camps, in violation of international law. While the government has said that most would be able to return home by the end of the year, past government practice and the absence of any concrete plans for their release raises serious concerns about indefinite confinement, said Human Rights Watch.
"Treating all these men, women, and children as if they were Tamil Tiger fighters is a national disgrace," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Displaced Tamil civilians have the same rights to liberty and freedom of movement as other Sri Lankans."
While the Sri Lankan authorities are expected to screen persons leaving the war zone to identify Tamil Tiger combatants, international law prohibits arbitrary detention and unnecessary restrictions on 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 freedom of movement for security reasons, the restrictions must have a clear legal basis, be limited to what is necessary, and be proportionate to the threat.
Since March 2008, the government of Sri Lanka has detained virtually all civilians fleeing areas controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam at so-called "welfare centers" and "transitional relief villages." A small number of camp residents, mainly the elderly, have been released to host families and institutions for the elderly. The vast majority, however, remain in detention. As of June 5, the United Nations reported that the authorities were keeping 278,263 people in detention in 40 camps in the four northern districts of Vavuniya, Mannar, Jaffna, and Trincomalee.
A significant number of the detainees have close relatives in the region, with whom they could stay if they were allowed to leave.
"Many people are in the camps not because they have no other place to go," said Adams. "They are in the camps because the government does not allow them to leave."
Before the recent massive influx of displaced persons, the government proposed holding the displaced in camps for up to three years. According to the plan, those with relatives inside would be allowed to come and go after initial screening, but young or single people would not be allowed to leave. After international protests, the government said that it would resettle 80 percent of the displaced by the end of 2009. But the government's history of restricting the rights of displaced persons through rigid pass systems and strict restrictions on leaving the camps heightens concerns that they will be confined in camps much longer, possibly for years.
More than 2,000 people displaced from their homes in northwestern Mannar district by the fighting two years ago were released from the camps only in May, when the government said they could return to their homes.
Conditions in the camps are inadequate. Virtually all camps are overcrowded, some holding twice the number recommended by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Food distribution is chaotic, there are shortages of water, and sanitation facilities are inadequate. Camp residents do not have access to proper medical services and communicable diseases have broken out in the camps.
Since May 16, the military camp administration has imposed numerous restrictions on humanitarian organizations working in the camps, such as limiting the number of vehicles and staff members that can enter the camps, which has delayed the provision of much-needed aid. The military does not allow organizations into the camps to conduct protection activities, and a ban on talking to the camp residents leaves them further isolated. The military has also barred journalists from entering the camps except on organized and supervised tours.
"The poor conditions in the camps may worsen with the monsoon rains," said Adams. "Holding civilians who wish to move in with relatives and friends is irresponsible as well as unlawful."