12/04/2009, 00.00
SRI LANKA
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Confusing freedom of movement, long waiting procedures and half lies for Tamil refugees

by Melani Manel Perera
Sri Lanka’s government announced total freedom of movement for IDPs in refugee camps as of 1 December. A report by the South Asia Democrats group presents a different picture. Refugees say that permits are granted for only seven days, whilst the military say they have no time limits. Confusion reigns in the camp as applications to leave require long waits.
Colombo (AsiaNews) – A few days after the government announced that internally displaced persons (IDPs) living in refugee camps were free to move, the beneficiaries are still faced with poor information, confusing and often contradictory procedures and long waiting periods, this according to a report by the South Asia Democrats (SAD), which found discrepancies between what the government promised and the reality as described by refugees.

The SAD team noted that in Manik Farm, the largest refugee camp in northern Sri Lanka, IDPs still have to put up with long queues to get their permits at the local government office. “We spoke to a large group of them for a while to find out what they knew about the procedures, how it was being implemented, etc. We found that there was considerable confusion and that the procedures they described were somewhat different than those described by the authorities the day before,” the SAD report said.

SAD people talked to police in Manik Farm’s Zone 4 as well as Zone and Area commanders and found that applying for a permit to leave the camp was an uphill battle. IDPs and government authorities describe the same process and procedures but in different terms.

Officials say that permits to leave the camp have no time limitation; conversely, IDPs say that their permits usually have a maximum seven-day limit.

The government says that refugees can take everything with them when they go out and bring into the camps anything they got from the outside. IDPs deny this and stress instead that certain items are still restricted like phones.

IDPs complain that government offices (Kachcheri) do not accept hand-written applications. Government officials deny the allegation, saying instead that they ask applicants to fill out the form in its entirety and write legibly.

Red tape appears to be the main cause of confusion. This includes the cost of photocopies, 20 rupees (US$ 15 cents) per page, and uncertainty over whether hand-written forms are accepted.

Commanders of the area and camp visited by the SAD team said they would use the report to cut inefficiencies and improve procedures. Many hope people this will occur quickly, but the fact remains that despite freedom of movement IDPs, refugee camps are still under a number of old restrictions. For instance, IDPs can leave the camp but certain areas inside the camp are still off limits to them. When refugees want to meet relatives and friends, they can do so only at barbed wire fence. Military control remains strict; in fact, officials announced that refugees who leave the camp must register. They claim it is to help IDPs, but many fear it might be just another way of controlling them.

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