Sri Lanka's Refugee Camps Still Places of Fear

Ginny McCabe | Contributing Writer | Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Sri Lanka's Refugee Camps Still Places of Fear

Although the war has ended in Sri Lanka, strict government limits remain in place for relief agencies working with the country's 250,000 displaced people.

As of late last week, more than a dozen international relief aid agencies who had been operating in the camps said that the government had restricted movement of their vehicles, halting relief aid efforts. The agencies have appealed to Sri Lankan authorities to lift restrictions, as has United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, but conditions continue to deteriorate.

Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa said Sunday that he would not lift the restriction until various security measures are complete. Authorities fear that members of the defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) might still be among the camps, and fear they could escape with aid vehicles that go in and out of the camps. As a result, barbed-wire fences appear along the perimeter of many parts of the refugee camps, keeping health services and food supplies out while civilians are forced to wait inside.

The country's 26-year civil war ended May 19 when government forces declared victory. The fighting forced hundreds of thousands from their homes over the years, trapping minority Tamils between government forces and LTTE terrorists.

Tens of thousands of people trapped in the fighting zone have had to endure unimaginable hardship over recent weeks, because there was hardly any place left that was safe, and access to medical care, food and water was inadequate, the International Committee of the Red Cross reported. As of now, about 210,000 are still held inside about 20 camps for "internally displaced people."

Additionally, Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) reported that thousands of new arrivals are overwhelming medical facilities. Since the declaration of the end of the conflict, thousands of people have left the Vanni, the former conflict zone, and have arrived in the Vavuniya district in desperate need of medical care. About 1,900 patients are currently at the Vavuniya hospital, which has a 450-bed capacity.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which has been working in Sri Lanka for many years, issued a statement on Thursday, stating that the organization's access had been restored. Earlier that week, ICRC vehicles were not permitted into Menik Farm, the largest displaced persons camp in Sri Lanka, which houses more than 130,000 people.

The ICRC, together with its partners in the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, have been distributing drinking water, food packs, personal hygiene kits, baby-care parcels, emergency household items and kitchen utensils to around 40,000 people in Menik Farm, near Vavuniya. Also, tents and plastic sheeting were distributed to serve as temporary shelter for around 17,000 people.

"Between mid-February and the beginning of May, we were operating a ferry boat, which was taking people out of the conflict zone -- those who were seriously wounded or sick -- and taking them to hospitals outside of the zone. We had transported over 14,000 people like that," said Bernard Barrett, media spokesperson for the ICRC in Washington, D.C.

Besides access to the camps, he says, "the other issue is going to be resettlement -- how is the government going to organize that and when will they organize it. … Then, there is going to have to be the whole reintegration of the Tamil population into this society of the country, and that is a political decision that the government is going to have to sort out."

Even with the LTTE defeated, their work remains. The rebels planted explosives all over the war zone, and many have yet to be discovered.

"Also, in the area where the conflict has gone on, there is a lot of unexploded ordnance, so all of that is going to have to be cleared. It is a very dangerous area right now," Barrett said.  

World Vision, which also has worked in Sri Lanka since 1977, has maintained access to the camps, but struggles to help so many displaced people.

"The real challenge now is to heal the families and communities who have been displaced and affected for so long," Rachel Brumbaugh, World Vision's program officer who oversees Sri Lanka work from the United States.

"An entire generation has grown up knowing nothing but this conflict. A lot of peacebuilding work needs to be done to bring people to reconciliation and healing. One of World Vision's main priorities is to provide emotional and educational support to children. We do this by establishing Temporary Learning Spaces and Child-Friendly Spaces, which are areas where kids can come and be with their peers and regain a sense of normalcy after having been through distressing experiences."

The group has begun distributing study packs, including books, pens, pencils and other school supplies, to 2,000 children who will be given temporary education. Future work, however, depends on more funds. World Vision is working with the Sri Lanka's Ministry of Education to source teachers from the area to work in the temporary schools, and is collaborating with colleague agencies and the UN to ensure maximum coverage and assistance to the most needy.

"Many of the children have spent their entire lives in displacement camps or moving from place to place to avoid the conflict. It will take a lot of work to break down the years of prejudice and animosity," Brumbaugh said.

Ginny McCabe is an author, feature and entertainment writer from Cincinnati, OH. You may email her at [email protected], or visit