The IDP crisis: If Govt. wants to win over Tamils then it should re-settle them soon
by Somapala Gunadheera
The on-going local and international campaign against the detention of IDPs appears to be one of the most formidable problems the Government is facing after overcoming the LTTE. Mr. Anandasangaree has made an impassioned appeal to the President to put an end to the IDP stalemate in last Sunday’s Island. A similar appeal was made by the TNA when they first met the President after the ‘war’. Not a day passes without a protest about the plight of the displaced people, from parties concerned with their lot, irrespective of political or communal bias.
The pressure from India to settle the IDP crisis has been a constant feature ever since the influx commenced. The West has been far more vociferous about the problem. Their references to Sri Lanka invariably highlight the matter. Unending visits of dignitaries from the UN and the West to the IDP camps and their ‘parting shots’ have served to scandalize the detention. It has also created serious economic problems for the country with GSP+ and foreign aid using the resolution of the IDP crises as a quid pro quo.
Managing a refugee settlement of nearly 300,000 inmates is no child’s play. On the civilian side it is as massive an operation as the final battle against the LTTE. Authorities in charge of the IDP camps have done a very difficult job with commendable devotion. Even the delegation of Tamil Nadu politicians, who were here on an inspection tour of the camps, was noncommittal on the allegations back at home, against the conditions in the camps. That is as far as the comforts offered to the inmates are concerned. But physical comfort is not everything for a refugee.
The mental aspects of camp life have a very close connection to inmate satisfaction. Alienation from their normal habitats, inaccessibility to familiar contacts, exposure to unacquainted control systems, absence of information about the world outside and a sense of incarceration, lead to claustrophobia that can more than neutralize all the comforts offered to refugees. It is these frustrations that form the root cause of the widespread protests against the timeless detention of the IDPs.
A management problem
The refugee crisis is basically a management problem. If it is handled efficiently, the refugees will be happy and their happiness is a cornerstone of their integration into a nation that has been struggling to be born since the advent of independence. Unfortunately that truth does not appear to have dawned on the authorities in their preoccupation with the externalities of resettlement.
Rehabilitation in the Vanni appears to follow a pattern which is necessarily time consuming. The delay is creating the impression that there was an ulterior motive behind the stagnation. Apparently the authorities want to do a perfect job. They are busy creating infrastructure in the camps. There is no doubt that rehabilitation is essential but the immediate need is resettlement.
In the background of my experience in settling IDPs in Jaffna after the "Riviresa" I have ventured to offer some suggestions for consideration.
The main recommendations made may be summarized as follows:
1. Sort out the inmates by place of residence through a census
2. Settle people from the same locality in environment friendly small camps
3. Manage the classified camps through a committee of inmates’ nominees and their normal village level officers
4. Create links with the rest of the country that can lead to national reconciliation.
5. Security clear the inmates as a matter of first priority
6. Save time by separating the normal inmates from the suspected and not vice versa
7. Separate the cleared population from those under a cloud
8. Permit their kith and kin who take responsibility for them to take them away
9. Expedite the mine clearing operations by aligning them with the existing Army Camps
10. Let there be liaison between the managing committee of a camp and the demining operation at the destination
11. Prepare a time-based Resettlement Plan
12. Make the Plan known to the inmates and the world outside
13. Grant priority to resettlement over rehabilitation
14. Make the camps as accessible as possible to genuine visitors
15. Revamp infrastructure at the point of destination without wasting funds and energy at the place of temporary accommodation
16. Don’t leave room for foreigners to tell us how to resettle our own people
The thick smoke screen between the IDPs and the rest of the world makes it impossible to be sure of what is happening in the camps. However it appeared in the papers that a census had been taken and families united about two months after the influx. But the mass settlements do not appear to have been classified homogeneously.
Separation into workable mini-camps was undertaken only after the concentration came under floods with the rains but it is not certain whether this opportunity was used to recreate neighbourhoods. The management structure of a camp is very relevant to its efficiency, cohesiveness and inmate satisfaction but there is no knowing how these camps are run.
The above recommendations may be categorized broadly under the following heads:
* Resettlement Plan covering,
* Security clearing
Preparing a well thought out Resettlement Plan should be the foundation to resolving the refugee crisis. The Plan should be focused on two main concerns, demining and security clearing.
The stock excuse for the delay in settling the IDPs in their own homes is the presence of land mines. The time required to clear the mines is a function of the area to be cleared and the resources available for the job, both of which are already known quantities. What appears to be missing is the management expertise to do the calculation. Five months after the ‘war’, there is still no evidence that this basic estimate has been worked out.
Information on where these mines are, where they have been cleared and why the residents of cleared areas cannot be sent home is shrouded in mystery. In the absence of this crucial information, the day the demining operation would be completed has to remain in the limbo of the unknown creating uncertainty and tension among the refugees as to when they would be released from the camps. The much touted ‘180 days’ is a wish, not a plan.
But sporadic decisions are taken to resettle IDPs selectively, without reference to any plan. Last week it was suddenly announced that pregnant mothers and their family members have been sent back to their homes in Kilinochchi and Mulaithivu. It is difficult to understand why others from the same areas cannot be similarly settled unless fetuses have a magic power to diffuse land mines.
This incident appears to cast a shadow over the scare stories of mine fields. It also exposes the folly of sporadic announcements calculated to impress the public but unrelated to an overall plan, not to mention the risk of a baby boom from the camps.
The anxiety of the Government to keep the camps free of infiltration and adverse publicity has to be appreciated, particularly after a massive military operation. But security itself needs a plan to work on. Despite the enormity of the job, security clearing the inmates calls for a timeframe and a method of operation.
Detaining all camp inmates until the last culprit is detected, would be an atrocious violation of the human right to freedom. It is logical and humane to release the innocents as they are cleared. Here I ask for no more than what Mr. Durand Appuhamy wants done, at the end of his vehement defence of safety and security at the camps vide his article appearing in the Island of the 14th October: "all those established to be victimized civilians should be allowed to go back to their homes if that is their wish, provided their home areas have been cleared of mines."
Despite all the precautions to catch the culprits in the camps it has now transpired that about 20,000 LTTE operatives have bought their way out. There can be no doubt that those who escaped were the worst security risks. There is no point now in closing the stable door indefinitely, after the most dangerous horses have fled. It will only result in penalizing the innocent lambs trapped inside for want of funds and influence.
It is significant that most of the hardcore terrorists detected recently were found outside the camps. May be that the information about them came from those under detention in the camps but it would amount to inhuman torture to keep inmates detained until the last terrorist is discovered. Another excuse given for the detention is the presence of concealed arms and explosives but it would be ludicrous to detain the refugees until the Vanni is dug out to the last inch.
The present approach to refugee management appears to be dealing with the IDPs in bulk, which makes it an amorphous problem. At present refugees do not have a sense of identity. They are treated as ‘things’ for which certain services are being rendered. This anonymity affects their self-respect and morale.
Lumping together refugees from different localities can lead to disorientation and distress. People who have come from the same village/locality should be housed in the same camp. This trend must be further developed by getting the selectees for a classified camp to nominate their own committee of management with their village level officials included in the body. Such proactive measures should facilitate management, reduce tensions in the camps and keep the inmates pacified until they are sent home.
Accessibility would act as another soothing balm on the over-wrought nerves of the refugees. Separating the suspects from others would enable the authorities to open the camps to visitors with confidence. Anxiety about security is understood, having regard to the crisis and past experience. But excluding all visitors creates suspicion by the very act, thereby giving credence to negative propaganda. For imaginable reasons, admission to camps cannot be given as in the case of a public exhibition. On the other hand accessibility naturally creates credibility.
Keeping the camps strictly out of bounds sacrificed a golden opportunity that was emerging soon after the ‘war’. There was a rush of sympathy from the South for the fallen countrymen in the North. Funds and materials were collected and dispatched to the camps in large quantities but inaccessibility put the donors and recipients asunder. In the absence of face to face contact, enthusiasm died a premature death and the door was closed on an ideal opportunity for national reconciliation.
Communication is of the essence to the resettlement plan, once it is drawn up. Refugees should be kept informed of the plan’s timeframe and progress of its implementation. This would give them information on which they can plan their own future with confidence and act as another consolation pending release.
Naturally the dates of release have to vary as resettlement has to proceed progressively, area by area as the mines are cleared. But a schedule of resettlement should be worked out methodically for each unit and announced forthwith. That would give the refugees a target of hope and the officials a coordinated program of work.
Last but not least, it would definitely be in the best interest of the Government to clear the camps well in advance of the forthcoming elections. A concentration of thousands of refugees frothing and fuming with frustration in the face of an election, can become a nightmare to the party in power.
As Mr. Anandasangaree appeals to the President regarding the IDPs, if the Government wants ‘to win over the Tamils’, it should, ‘resettle them soon". The number of votes in the camps and those of their sympathizers outside, may very well tilt the scales against the Government at a closely fought election.