Sri Lanka unlocks the camps, but not for long

December 2, 2009

I wish, I really wish, that I had only good news to report today.  Today was the day the Sri Lankan government promised that the displaced civilians who’d been held in military-run camps for the last 6 months would be free to leave the camps “sans any conditions being imposed.”  But it hasn’t worked out that way.  The civilians were told today they could leave but they also have to return to the camps soon

As the war ended in May this year with the Sri Lankan government’s defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels, about 280,000 civilians displaced by the fighting were placed in overcrowded, military-run camps which they weren’t allowed to leave.  The government said that the civilians first had to be  screened to determine whether there were any Tiger fighters among them.  Amnesty International pointed out that this violated the civilians’ freedom of movement and constituted arbitrary detention.  Amnesty launched its “Unlock the Camps” campaign to get the Sri Lankan government to allow the civilians to leave the camps if they wish to do so.

Since the end of the war, the government has released civilians from the camps, but according to the U.N., around 136,000 were still being held as of Nov. 25.

On Nov. 21, the Sri Lankan government announced that, as of Dec. 1, the civilians would at last be free to come and go from the camps.  Yesterday, a government minister said there would be no restrictions imposed on the duration of the civilians’ absence from the camps.

Today, 100,000 civilians, according to government officials, left the camps.  But the BBC reported that the civilians were told by officials that they had permission to stay away from the camps for only up to 15 days and that anyone trying to leave permanently would be “tracked down.”  In an interview with the BBC, the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister did not deny the existence of the 15-day restriction.  The U.N. is reported today as saying that the civilians had been given 10 days to return to the camps if they left today.  One civilian said today she’d been given permission to leave the camp for a week but would lose state aid if she didn’t return.

Amnesty is calling on the Sri Lankan government to permanently release the civilians from the camps immediately.  If the civilians want to remain in the camps pending a final decision on where they’ll live, they should be free to do so.  But if they do have other safe areas in which to stay, it should be their choice, not the government’s, where they live.  Sadly, we still need to say to the government, “Unlock the camps now!”   I really, really hope the time will come soon when that’s no longer needed.