12/11/2008, 00.00
SRI LANKA
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Refugees flee Tamil Tigers, but are corralled into government centers

by Melani Manel Perera
The government continues its propaganda in support of the war against the Tigers. Much of the population is unaware of the real situation of those living in the area of conflict. Rukshan Fernando, coordinator for the nonprofit organization Law & Society Trust: the refugees are living in precarious conditions, prisoners of the refugee camps.

Colombo (AsiaNews) - According to a survey commissioned by the government, 75% of Sri Lankans are "strongly in favor of military action, and consider it the only way to defeat terrorism." The results were made public on December 10, on a sample of 500 people living just outside the zone of conflict between the army and the Tamil Tigers.

Rukshan Fernando, coordinator of the Law & Society Trust (ST) and a member of the Christian Solidarity movement, has visited the region of Vanni to verify in person the situation of the refugees and of the camps set up by the government. Interviewed by AsiaNews, he affirms: "What most media didn't report and what the government has not told Sri Lankans and the world is that all these people [editor's note: the refugees of the war zones] are now being detained against their will."

From October 21-30, hundreds of people crossed the checkpoint in Omanthai, leaving the area of conflict: 335 have reached the camp set up in Menik Farm, while others have been sent to the school in Omanthai (both in the district of Vavunya), more than 100 kilometers from Jaffna.

"The government has made every effort to 'invite' the population of Vanni to move to the areas under its control, but it has not made adequate arrangements." Rukshan says that in Menik Farm, "there are also pregnant women, unaccompanied mentally disabled women, patients with diabetes, asthma, high blood pressure and unaccompanied children and youth."

The government is providing minimal assistance. "Although people who arrived in the initial days received mats, towel, bed sheets, clothes, bathing soap, laundry soap," Rukshan tells AsiaNews, "the latter arrivals were mostly receiving only food." "Privacy for women is almost nonexistent. Men and women have been compelled to sleep in one hall, and there is also no privacy for women in bathing places. It has been reported that there are no roof or doors in the toilets in the multipurpose hall."

Rukshan says that the camps are, in practice, detention centers: "Some of these people want to go and live with their relatives, few want to stay in the camp, but would like to go out and look for some work. All would like to enjoy freedom. Ironically, these people who found it hard to get away due to restrictions on movement imposed by the Tigers, in the name of 'liberation' now find themselves detained and confined in the name of 'national security'."

"When I was in Chettikulam, I asked whether I could visit Menik Farm and meet some of these people, but was told that no one will be allowed to visit without permission from military and the government agent. I heard that in the initial days, even UN and the National Human Rights Commission had been denied access to people in the camp." Moreover, the refugees cannot go to the other centers to reunite with their families, and "it's not clear whether the displaced people were provided opportunities to contact their relatives and friends."

Rukshan affirms that the relationship between the refugees and the army personnel is good: "I heard that military officers were polite and helpful to the displaced as well as visiting humanitarian agencies and religious leaders. There were no reports of any form of harassment by military. Amongst the people forcibly confined in Menik Farm is a 10-week-old baby, who was born in flight, and was taken to the Menik Farm. The facilities provided by the government are so basic, that it was an army officer that had felt sorry for this baby, and personally provided a plastic basin for this baby."

"Government agents," Rukshan explains, "are now asking UN agencies and NGOs to provide assistance. And in turn, UN and NGOs are stuck in a dilemma of helping and supporting a detention centre and not responding to basic needs of the people which the government is not providing."

The coordinator of the Law & Society Trust says that conditions for refugees in the centers of Omanthai recall those in the camps of Kallimoddai and Sirukkandal, in the district of Mannar, which he visited in March of this year. "The Inter Agency Standing Committee (IASC) reports have indicated that more than 800 people are presently confined in these two camps, with severe restrictions on their movements."

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