May , COLOMBO (IPS) - An army-supervised mass resettlement plan underway for more than 100,000 people, displaced by fierce battles with Tamil rebels in eastern Batticaloa district, may be causing new problems for the refugees rather than solving existing ones, say volunteers.
Over the past week, some 20,000 people have been resettled in their homes and, according to government authorities, everything was going according to plan. "There has been talk that this is forced resettlement -- there is nothing like that, everyone is going back voluntarily," military spokesman Brig. Prasad Samarasinghe told IPS.
Batticaloa, the nerve centre of eastern Sri Lanka, has been in the eye of the storm since last December when fighting engulfed the district that is home to all of the island’s ethnic groups.
The town and outlying areas were inundated by civilians fleeing their homes when fighting broke out between government forces and Tamil rebels first in areas north of the town and then the western side. By early March, the refugee count in the district had swelled to above 150,000 and they were everywhere -- under trees, on the side of the roads.
Later they were housed in schools, community centres and with host families, but this affected civilian life in the district. At the height of the fighting 325 schools were closed with studies of 135,000 students disrupted, according Batticaloa’s civilian administrator S. Amalanathan. Eighty schools still remain shut.
However, the district is now limping back to normalcy with the Sri Lankan government undertaking a massive resettlement project to move the refugees back to their villages. Last week, three government ministers were on hand to see off the first batch of villagers returning to areas wrested from the control of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) or Tamil Tigers.
The military is playing a major role in the effort, registering the returnees and issuing security clearances. The plan is to send back 34,000 people to their homes before the month is through and resettle another 60,000 in the next phase, starting Jun. 1.
Most of the displaced prefer to return to their homes rather than remain in welfare centres or with host families. "Many IDPs were keen to return but are concerned of the security conditions. Many stated that with security guarantees from authorities, they would be willing to return," a team from the Colombo-based think tank, Centre for Policy Alternatives, said after a visit to the east.
Some of the displaced have been on the move since August 2006 when they fled villages south of the Trincomalee bay. They had to travel more than 100 km, often with just the clothes on their backs, before they could reach safer areas in Batticaloa.
There has been criticism that the return was not totally within internationally accepted norms. United Nations agencies like the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) have urged the government to adopt a step-by-step approach and be mindful of existing risks.
UNICEF chief field officer Natascha Paddisson said there were worries over lack of access to education, water and sanitation conditions and risk of underage recruitment.
However, the warnings were mild compared to how U.N. agencies reacted in March when the government resettled over 15,000 people in Vaharai, north of Batticaloa. UNHCR reports then spoke of forced resettlement and the Inter Agency Standing Committee (IASC) distributed leaflets in the camps, educating the refugees on their rights, earning the wrath of the government.
Humanitarian workers described the current round of resettlements as ad hoc. "We could not go into the areas where the returnees were going, the security forces said that it was unsafe which was a bit surprising given that all these civilians were going there," Rukshan Fernando from t