Sri Lanka: are releases of displaced civilians genuine?

Amnesty International has been calling on the Sri Lankan government to grant freedom of movement to over 250,000 displaced civilians now being held in internment camps in the north.  The government has said that it can’t allow civilians to leave the camps until they’ve been screened to determine if any of them are connected to the opposition Tamil Tigers.  (For more information on this subject, please see our Sri Lanka page.)  The Sri Lankan government has announced releases of some of the civilians.  But are they actually being released?

Amnesty has received reports that some of those released have apparently been transferred to other camps where they may be subjected to additional screening by local authorities.  The UN has also reported that some of the displaced civilians have been transferred from the camps and are now being held in transit sites in other areas with restricted freedom of movement.  The UN refugee agency last week said that they were concerned about approximately 3,300 displaced civilians who’ve been held in transit sites for more than two weeks rather than being returned to their homes.  A British minister visiting the camps this week said that the British government funding couldn’t support people simply being transferred from one “closed” camp (meaning, a camp which people aren’t free to leave) to another closed camp.

The displaced civilians should be immediately allowed to leave the camps if they wish.  Unlock the camps now!

Two hazards for Sri Lankan displaced civilians

I have two issues on my mind about the displaced civilians being held in internment camps in Sri Lanka:  (1) will the camps be able to cope with the coming monsoon rains, and (2) are the civilians safe in the camps now?

On the first issue, a British minister visiting the camps said Tuesday that freedom of movement for the displaced was critical now, especially with the rains expected soon.  (Amnesty International has been calling on the Sri Lankan government to allow the civilians to leave the camps if they wish; for more information on this topic, please see our Sri Lanka page.)   The BBC was allowed to accompany the minister as he toured the camps and heard heartrending pleas from the displaced civilians about poor conditions in the camps.  The Sri Lankan government has said that the camps will be ready for the monsoon, although a UN expert who visited the camps last week expressed serious concerns about whether the camps would be equipped to deal with the heavy rains.

On the second issue, the UN refugee agency said last week it was concerned for the safety of the displaced civilians in the camps, after an incident on Sept. 26th in which some civilians attempting to move between areas of a camp were stopped by the security forces.  The angered civilians then attacked the security forces who responded by opening fire, resulting in several injuries, including a child who is now paralyzed.

As the visiting British minister said, allowing displaced civilians to leave the camps would do much to address the first issue.  I think it would also help a lot on the second issue; allowing people more control over their own lives would do a lot to ease any bitterness or tension.  If you haven’t already, please consider joining in our Unlock the Camps campaign and ask the Sri Lankan government to restore freedom of movement now to the displaced civilians.

Human Rights Flashpoints–September 9, 2009

Sudan – Deadly Attacks in the South
Recent ethnic clashes in southern Sudan have killed at least 25 people and displaced dozens of civilians in Upper Nile State since Friday. Violence has been escalating recently, as women and children are increasingly targeted by both tribal militias and the Ugandan rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

The World Health Organization (WHO) also warned today that conflict-affected areas of southern Sudan, including Ezo County in Western Equatoria State where the LRA has been active recently, are facing a high risk of epidemics. WHO cites damaged health facilities, displaced health workers and the difficulty of accessing health facilities as contributing factors to this increasing risk for epidemics. Attacks in recent weeks have caused forced around 80,000 people to flee their homes.

In a separate development, Reuters reports that the NGO Global Witness claims that they have found serious discrepancies in reports of Sudan’s oil revenues, meaning that the Sudanese government may been underpaying the south by hundreds of millions of dollars.  However, government officials denied all accusations made in the report and claimed to the BCC that the south was represented in all state bodies that dealt with oil.

Must Reads


The violent clashes are different to the traditional  ‘cattle rustling’ that normally occurs each year. Women and children, usually spared in this fighting, are now deliberately targeted and the number of deaths are higher than the number of wounded… The intention is to attack a village and to kill. The result is a population living in total fear, with significant humanitarian and medical needs – Jonathan Whittall, MSF Head of Mission in southern Sudan, September 3, 2009.

Abatement of violence and intertribal reconciliation in the south are vital to the forthcoming elections in 2010 and the subsequent referendum in 2011 – UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, September 6, 2009.  

Yemen – No End to the Violence
Clashes between government troops and rebel groups in Northern Yemen are ongoing and putting the lives of many civilians at risk. Displaced people in and around the city of Saada are trapped in the war zone, unable to leave and without access to humanitarian aid. Those who are able to leave the area have no choice but to use mined roads.

According to the BBC, a truce between the government and rebels which was agreed to on Friday, primarily to allow civilians to flee from the war zone, collapsed just a few hours later. Both sides blame the other for the continuing violence.

Meanwhile, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is waiting for security clearances in order to open a humanitarian corridor that would allow them to gain access through Saudi Arabia to displaced people in need of tents and other aid. The UN estimates that about 35,000 have been displaced by the fighting in the past three weeks alone.

Must Reads


Heavy fighting between Al Houthi forces and government troops in and around Saada city in northern Yemen continues with utter disregard for the safety and well being of the civilian population – Andrej Mahecic, spokesman of the UNHCR, September 8, 2009 

The children of Yemen need urgent assistance. We cannot fail them – Sigrid Kaag, UNICEF regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, September 8, 2009

Coming Up

  • September 7-8: Southern African Development Community (SADC) summit in Kinshasa, DRC.
  • September 8: Amnesty International releases new briefing on Chad, which uses satellite images to document housing demolitions in N’Djamena. 
  • September 8: Ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya meets with members of the OAS in Washington, DC.
  • September 8: Head of UNHCR begins five-day trip to North Africa to visit refugees from Western Sahara.
  • September 8: Inauguration of President-elect Malam Bacai Sanha in Guinea Bissau.
  • September 10: Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders due to resume UN-sponsored peace talks.
  • Week of September 14: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
  • September 15: 64th session of the UN General Assembly opens.

Juliette Rousselot contributed to this post.

Human Rights Flashpoints is a weekly column about countries at risk of escalating human rights violations and is brought to you by AIUSA’s Crisis Prevention and Response team.

Tensions in DRC Remain High

The situation in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo remains fragile, after rebel forces and local militia clashed north of Goma. More than 250,000 people have been displaced by the recent fighting and the humanitarian situation remains catastrophic. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is currently trying to find out what happened to the 50,000 people that were previously housed in the area. “As we feared, three internal displacement sites run by UNHCR near the town of Rutshuru in eastern DRC (…) have been destroyed and emptied,” David Benthu Nthengwe, UNHCR external relations officer, told IRIN “We and our partners are now trying to determine the whereabouts of tens of thousands of IDPs from the camps.”

The fighting in eastern DRC represents only a recent spike in violence in a country plagued by years of war. One of the underlying causes of the conflict is the ongoing impunity for perpetrators of the most egregious human rights violations, including sexual violence against women and recruitment of child soldiers. Despite having the largest UN peacekeeping force in the world, the question remains: what else can the international community do to bring lasting peace to the people of the DRC?