(New York) - The Sri Lankan government should immediately release the 250,000 displaced Tamil civilians still held in detention camps, Human Rights Watch said today. Deteriorating conditions, including a shortage of water since October 5, 2009, combined with the prospect of flooding during the imminent monsoon season, have led to rising tensions among camp residents and clashes with the military.
Human Rights Watch called on international donors such as Japan, the United States and European Union member states to send a clear message to the Government of Sri Lanka that continued detention of the displaced will have serious consequences for Sri Lanka's relationship with the international community.
"With all these people penned up unnecessarily in terrible conditions, the situation in these camps is getting tense and ugly," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "If they aren't out of there before the monsoons hit, their lives and health will be in serious danger."
The Sri Lankan government has confined virtually everyone displaced by the recent conflict to detention camps, unlawfully depriving them of their liberty and freedom of movement. According to the UN, by the end of September - more than four months after the end of the armed conflict - the government continued to hold 255,551 displaced persons in camps and hospitals, the majority in a large complex of camps called "Manik Farm" in Vavuniya district.
The government has come under increasing criticism for its refusal to release the displaced Tamils. On September 29, Walter Kälin, the representative of the UN secretary-general on the human rights of internally displaced persons, criticized the slow pace of release, saying that "immediate and substantial progress in restoring freedom of movement for the displaced is an imperative if Sri Lanka is to respect the rights of its citizens and comply with its commitments and obligations under international law."
Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has warned that Sri Lanka risks creating "bitterness" if it fails to resettle Tamil refugees quickly, and on October 6, the British development minister, Mike Foster, said after a visit to the camps that, "freedom of movement is critical if a humanitarian crisis is to be averted."
Human Rights Watch said that the government's screening of camp residents for LTTE supporters has been non-transparent and protracted and that even people who have apparently been screened and cleared have not been released. In September, the Sri Lankan foreign minister announced that 162,000 camp residents had been screened. According to the UN, however, the government had released fewer than 15,000 as of September 28.
On several occasions the government has falsely claimed that it has allowed thousands detained in Manik Farm to return home. On September 24, for example, it announced that 40,000 people had returned to their districts. In reality, many of the people that the government claims to have released have been transferred from Manik Farm to other detention camps, while others are still held at a "way station," a temporary holding facility, in Vavuniya. According to the UN, more than 1,500 people who were transferred from Manik Farm to the way station on September 13 and were due to be released, are still held there, surviving in rapidly deteriorating conditions.
"While the government has the right to screen the displaced persons for security reasons, the process has turned into a ruse to hold as many Tamils for as long as possible in the camps," Adams said. "The government's untruthful statements and promises should not fool anybody anymore."
The international community should demand that the Sri Lankan government release the people in the camps and ensure their well-being, Human Rights Watch said.
Deteriorating conditions in the camps
Several displaced persons told Human Rights Watch that camp conditions have recently deteriorated, creating tension and unrest.
Residents in several sections, called "zones," of Manik Farm have had only limited access to water since a main pipeline pumping water from a nearby river was turned off on October 5 because of low water levels in the river. Camp administration officials have restricted the amount of water per family to 30 liters. The UN refugee agency recommends a minimum of 15 liters of water per person per day.
Thirty-eight-year-old "Jeevitha," a camp resident in Zone 2, told Human Rights Watch:
"This morning I managed to get only 20 liters for our family of five. I won't be able to get more until tomorrow and this water is all we have for drinking, cooking, washing and bathing. For the last three days we have not been able to take a bath or clean properly. It is agony, and the camp administration here does not seem to care about us."
"Aanathi," a 30-year-old woman living in Zone 2 with her 1-year-old son, told Human Rights Watch:
"I stood in line for four-and-a-half hours today, but I gave up in the end. I am so tired. Yesterday, I lined up around midnight and I was only able to get water at nine in the morning. I got 30 liters for me and my one-year-old son. We managed with that, but I know of families with 10 or more family members who have to survive on the same amount."
"Maadhavi," a 32-year-old resident in Zone 1, said that people are getting desperate because of the water shortage. On the morning of October 7, when the water suddenly came back for about 30 minutes, people were scrambling to fill their buckets and a fight broke out:
"People were shouting and throwing stones at each other. We went to the camp administration, but they just told us that we have to endure it. If they don't get us water by tomorrow, we will tear down the fences and go to find water ourselves!"
Over the past two weeks, the Manik Farm camps have also been hit by strong winds, causing damage to shelters and exacerbating the already difficult living conditions. Twenty-year-old "Kumaravel," who lives in one of the camps with his family of five, told Human Rights Watch:
"The winds are tearing branches off the trees and tin sheets off the huts, which then fall on the tents. We are forced to cook outside and the wind blows dust and mud into our food, making it practically inedible. It is very difficult to live here."
Because of overcrowding in the Manik Farm camps, Kumaravel's family shares their five-person tent with another family of four. The section in Manik farm where they live, Zone 2, holds more than 52,000 people even though there should be fewer than 29,000 people there under UN standards. At night, the women sleep inside the tent while the men either sleep outside or in one of the camp's makeshift classrooms. Kumaravel is worried about what they will do during the rainy season, which usually starts in October:
"We had heavy rains about a month ago. It was hell. The ground here cannot absorb water so it just gathers. We couldn't even walk around. The authorities have done some work to improve drainage, but I doubt it will help much."
Rains in mid-August caused serious flooding, as water destroyed tents and other shelter, made cooking impossible for many, and caused roads to collapse, preventing delivery of crucial aid, such as drinking water. Water also flooded latrine pits, causing raw sewage to flow among the tents. Since then, shelter in Manik Farm - most of which was set up during the large influx of displaced persons in April and May -has further deteriorated. The emergency tents or shelter kits in which most people live were designed to last for three to six months.
Clashes between residents and the military
The mounting frustration among the displaced caused by the deteriorating conditions and lack of free movement has led to conflicts with the military guarding the camps. On September 26, soldiers opened fire on a group of camp residents, wounding at least two. A military spokesperson claimed the guards were compelled to fire when the group tried to escape and started throwing stones and a hand-grenade. The authorities also quickly concluded that, "The wounded suspects and the crowd had links with the terrorists."
However, witnesses gave Human Rights Watch a different account, explaining that Manik Farm camp residents are sometimes allowed to cross between two Zone 1 and Zone 2 to visit relatives or to collect firewood (which is unavailable in Zone 1). At around 5:30 p.m. on that day, a long line of people were waiting for permission to cross the road separating the camps when a soldier called on a man carrying firewood to come forward. Four witnesses independently told Human Rights Watch that the soldiers suddenly attacked the man. Kumaravel, who was one of the witnesses, told Human Rights Watch:
"A soldier started beating the man. Then another joined in. The people in the line tried to intervene, but one of the soldiers opened fire and the other took out a hand grenade and threatened to throw it. Soon, other soldiers arrived and started beating people."
Two witnesses told Human Rights Watch that after the soldiers had dispersed the crowd, the first soldier placed a hand grenade among the wood the man had been carrying and photographed it with his cell phone. Witnesses said that the man was taken away and that the wounded were taken to hospitals. The government said 19 displaced men were arrested after the incident. Human Rights Watch has obtained credible information that at least some of the arrested were beaten during their detention. At least some of those detained were later released.
The incident came just days after soldiers clashed with camp residents in another camp in Vavuniya. On September 23, residents at the Poonthotham camp attacked soldiers and police officers and their vehicles after the police took one of the camp's residents away. The riot, which lasted for three hours, ended when the police brought the man back.
"These incidents should serve as a wake-up call for the government and donors," said Adams. "It's time for international donors to send a clear message to Colombo that continued and blatant disregard for international standards will come at a price."