Monday, August 30, 2010

Internally Displaced Persons in Sri Lanka: Catering for their Special Needs for Protection and Assistance

Ms. Wasantha Senavirathne
[Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka]

1. Introduction

Forced displacement of people is a human tragedy at the international, regional and domestic levels. When people are forced to flee from their homes many of them choose to remain within their own community and familiar surroundings, rather than crossing national borders to seek refuge in a foreign country. Persons who remain displaced within the boundaries of their State of origin are called internally displaced persons (IDPs). They prefer to remain in their home territory for numerous reasons. They are reluctant to abandon their familiar surroundings, and it is easier to return and resettle when conditions permit them to do so. Living in a foreign country is a relatively new experience, to which many of them have an aversion. They may also lack the means 1. Nevertheless, internal displacement may entail conditions of severe hardship and suffering; it may break up families, cut social and cultural ties, terminate stable employment relationships and disrupt educational opportunities. It also limits access to the basic necessities of life, and exposes the displaced to acts of violence such as armed attack, rape and killings 2. Especially in the context of armed conflict, IDPs are more vulnerable because they generally end up in camps or other places under the control of one of the parties to the conflict, and as a result become easy victims of the atrocities of war.

Originally, the problem of internal displacement was considered an entirely internal matter for sovereign States to handle, as the displaced persons were their citizens and continued to live within the national borders. However, because of its massive impact on international peace, security and stability the phenomenon of internal displacement has also become an issue of serious international concern. Unfortunately, the response of the international community and responsible sovereign authorities has on many occasions been inadequate. Francis Deng states, “While refugees have an established system of international protection and assistance, those who are displaced internally fall under the domestic jurisdiction and responsibility of the state, without there being specific legal or institutional bases for their protection and assistance. For the same reason, internal displacement poses a challenge to the international community to develop norms, institutions, and mechanisms for preventing it, addressing its consequences, and finding durable solutions, with the responsibility of sovereignty as the starting point 3.” IDPs are not included in and protected by the well-established refugee regime 4; they are only covered by general principles of international law and ad hoc measures. Therefore their need for protection and assistance at all stages of internal displacement, at both international and domestic levels, is absolutely essential.

2. Tragedy of Internal Displacement in Sri Lanka

During the last three decades, Sri Lanka saw a multiple waves of population displacements, due to the recently ended thirty years internal armed conflict broke out between the Government armed forces of the country and the resistant movement named Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE); and the massive natural disaster, tsunami, occurred on the 26th of December 2004. Between October 2008 and June 2009, in Sri Lanka, more than 280,000 people fled to government-controlled territory, and as of October 2009, the vast majority of these IDPs remained in camps in the districts of Vavuniya, Mannar, Jaffna and Trincomalee. Camps, set up as temporary shelters for these IDPs in a short period of time are complained to be lack of amenities with severe overcrowding. The worst situation has been at Menik Farm camp which in June 2009 was holding 220,000 IDPs 5. There are also thousands of IDPs in Jaffna in the north and Trincomalee in the east who have been displaced since before 2008. Over 60,000 Muslim IDPs displaced by the LTTE from the North and North-West have been living in the town of Puttalam since 1990. However, now the situation is much better and the resettling these IDPs are processing. There are numerous practical problems still hindering the smooth resettlement of these vulnerable populations.

Throughout the conflict no Ministry has had overall responsibility for the welfare of IDPs and there are no comprehensive policies or guidelines on displacement. In 2004, the Government adopted a National Framework for Relief, Rehabilitation and Reconciliation (Triple R) to provide a common strategy for needs assessment, planning and delivery of assistance. The Triple R Framework adopted the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement of 1998 as official policy for assisting IDPs affected by the conflict and required Ministries to bring their policies and programmes into alignment with these principles 6. Though, the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights is the nominated focal point in relation to the protection and assistance of IDPs in Sri Lanka, the overlapping mandates and responsibilities of Ministries and agencies have led to delays, poor coordination and duplication of activities. Legislators were drafting a national IDP law at the end of 2008, but it has not yet submitted to the parliament for adoption. The IDP Protection Unit of the National Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka is taking steps to promote IDPs’ rights, for example on forced returns. Over the past years, UN agencies also have taken the lead in providing protection and assistance to these vulnerable people but their activities are limited due restriction imposed by the Government limiting their access to IDPs and returnees in various parts of the country 7.

Due to the recently held Sri Lankan presidential elections on 26th January 2010, large numbers of IDPs from the north and the east are being returned to their districts of origin, where they face severe difficulties rebuilding their livelihoods. People’s original homes are still severely damaged, and many return areas have not yet been demined according to UN security standards, putting returnees at risk. As a result, many people have not been able to return to their precise places of origin and so remain displaced, staying with host families or in transition camps 8. Accordingly, finding durable solutions for Sri Lankan IDPs remains a daunting challenge for national authorities.

As observed above, the problem of internal displacement is still threatening to the peace, stability and sustainable development of the country in different forms. However, Sri Lankan government is working hard to achieve long lasting solutions for IDPs by resettling them in the most effective way. Further steps yet to be taken to reintegrate them into the society and to protect and promote their basic human rights needed to live a dignified life.


1.Francis M. Deng, The Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons, ‘Compilation and Analysis of Legal Norms’, E/CN.4/1996/52/Add.2, 5 December 1995, para.9.
3.See Francis M. Deng, ‘Flocks without shepherds: The International Dilemma of Internal Displacement’ in Wendi Davis (eds), Rights have no Borders: Internal Displacement Worldwide, (Norwegian Refugee Council / Global IDP Survey, 1998), .
4.1951 UN Convention relating to Refugees and its Protocol of 1967 provide the legal framework for the protection of refugees, while the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has the direct mandate to look after their needs for protection and assistance.
5.See Sri Lanka: Continuing humanitarian concerns and obstacles to durable solutions for recent and longer-term IDPs,, accessed on 18.02.2010.
6.Paula Banerjee, Putting IDPs on the map: achievements and challenges, Forced migration review, Special Volume,p.18 December 2006, p.
7.See Internal displacement in South and South-East Asia, p.55.
8.See Sri Lanka: Continuing humanitarian concerns and obstacles to durable solutions for recent and longer-term IDPs,, accessed on 18.02.2010

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