Unlock the Camps in Sri Lanka!

Hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the recent war in North Eastern Sri Lanka live now in camps and are being denied basic human rights. In response to this crisis we just launched the Unlock the Camps campaign, in which we urge the Sri Lankan government to allow freedom of movement and the installment of a civilian administration of the military run internment camps. We further call on the Government of India to monitor the aid pledged to the Sri Lankan government. As part of the Unlock the Camps campaign we have developed a Facebook Crisis Application, and produced a new Briefing Paper.

Two months after the end of the fighting, the Sri Lankan authorities are still not addressing properly the needs of the newly displaced. The camps are overcrowded and unsanitary. In addition, these are effectively detention camps. They are run by the military and the camp residents are prevented from leaving them; they are denied basic legal safeguards. The government’s claim that it needs to hold people to carry out screening is not a justifiable reason to detain civilians including entire families, the elderly and children, for an indefinite period.

Displaced people have even been prevented from talking to aid workers. With no independent monitors able to freely visit the camps, many people are unprotected and at risk from enforced disappearances, abductions, arbitrary arrest and sexual violence.

According to government figures, the fighting between the Sri Lankan army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) displaced over 409,000 people. At least 280,000 are displaced from areas previously under LTTE control. A dramatic influx of people fleeing the fighting and crossing to government controlled areas took place from March 2009. The displaced people, including at least 50,000 children, are being accommodated in 41 camps spread over four districts. The majority of the displaced are in Vavuniya District where Menik Farm is the biggest camp.

When United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited some of the camps in May, he said:

I have travelled around the world and visited similar places, but this is by far the most appalling scene I have seen.

While some progress had been made on providing basic needs, much still needs to be done on the right to health, food, water, family reunion and access to relatives. We continue to urge the government of Sri Lanka:

  • to end restrictions on liberty and freedom of movement
  • to ensure that camps are of a truly civilian nature and administered by civilian authorities, rather than under military supervisions
  • give immediate and full access to national and international organizations and observers, including aid agencies, in order to monitor the situation and provide a safeguard against human rights violations.

Trapped in de-facto detention camps

The Sri Lankan government said on 21 May that the displaced will be resettled in 180 days. But very few have so far been allowed to return to their homes or to join friends or family elsewhere, and people remaining in the camps are not at liberty to leave camp premises. The Sri Lankan government must end its policy of forcibly confining people to camps, which amounts to arbitrary detention.  The Sri Lankan government must allow persons who require temporary shelter in these facilities to come and go freely.

With assistance and support from the international community and the involvement of displaced people themselves, the Sri Lankan government must set up clear benchmarks and timelines to ensure that displaced people can safely return home or find other durable solutions (such as relocation) as soon as possible.

IDP's Still Locked Up in Sri Lanka

Menik Farm displacement camp in Sri Lanka. (c) Digital Globe 2009

Menik Farm displacement camp in Sri Lanka. (c) Digital Globe 2009

The IDP situation in Sri Lanka continues to worsen as weeks continue to pass without the release of civilians locked up in the camps. The government, in violation of international law, has since March 2008 confined virtually all civilians displaced by the fighting in detention camps, euphemistically called “welfare centers” by the government. In a press statement this week, Eric P. Schwartz, Assistant Secretary of State for Refugees, described his short visit to Sri Lanka’s Menik Farm:

“[T]he vast majority of displaced persons remain confined to camps, and my visit to Manik Farm – and my conversations with displaced person – underscore for me the hardships they are enduring. Moreover, there remain burdensome limitations on access to those camps for those international humanitarian organizations and others who are in a position to ameliorate the conditions faced by these victims of conflict.”

Beaches, Palm Trees, Displacement – Welcome to Sri Lanka's War Zone

A glimpse of the former war zone in northeastern Sri Lanka (c) AIUSA. Screenshot taken from Google Earth

A glimpse of the former war zone in northeastern Sri Lanka (c) AIUSA. Screenshot taken from Google Earth

Amnesty’s Science for Human Rights project just released a satellite image of Menik Farm in Sri Lanka, a de-facto internment camp run by the military, which offers a rare glimpse of the massive displacement caused by the conflict. Mark Cutts, the UN official at Menik Farm, recently told the BBC that “nothing less than a new city had been created.”

Through this image, along with aerial photographs displaying the devastation in the so called “safe zone”, we want to offer the public a rare opportunity to see on the ground details in a country where journalists and international monitors are widely prohibited from documenting the results of the recent military showdown. Graves, shelters and a shipwreck are among the things visible on the aerial photographs. We have combined all this information in a Google Earth Layer (recent version of Google Earth required), in order to give activists around the world access – something the government of Sri Lanka is denying us so far–  and to call for accountability for the crimes committed by both the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers. (Many thanks to AAAS and Ogle Earth for their help in putting this project together).

Satellite image and photograph of Menik Farm. (c) AIUSA, Screenshot taken from Google Earth

Satellite image and photograph of Menik Farm. (c) AIUSA, Screenshot taken from Google Earth

U.N. emergency relief coordinator John Holmes recently described IDP camps in Sri Lanka as “internment camps”, stating that people are not allowed to move freely in and out. The people in Menik Farm are being vetted by the government to determine if there are any links to the Tamil Tigers.

We continue to closely to monitor the situation on the ground, so stay tuned for further information.