Sri Lankan ‘welfare villages’ planned for Tamil refugees


Fri, Feb 13, 2009 - Page 5

Sri Lanka is preparing to house 200,000 civil war refugees at five huge “welfare villages” — complete with post offices, banks and libraries — where it expects them to stay for up to three years, a government plan said.

The draft plan, which the government has circulated among international aid groups and donors in recent days, surfaced as tens of thousands of civilians fled the northern battlefield where Tamil Tiger rebels and government forces have been waging heavy battles.

The government’s preparations appear to lend support to Red Cross estimates last month that 250,000 civilians were trapped in the war zone. The government says the number is less than half that, giving a much less dire assessment of the potential humanitarian crisis.

Aid workers and Western diplomats have expressed concerns about the treatment of the ethnic Tamil civilians in the camps and are worried the proposed plan would keep the displaced from returning to their homes while the military spends years searching the jungles and villages for the last remnants of the Tamil rebels.

The rebels have been fighting since 1983 for an independent state in the north for minority Tamils marginalized for decades by governments dominated by the Sinhalese majority. In recent months, the military has swept the rebels out of much of their 14,500km2 de facto state in the north and boxed them into a 150km2 strip of coastal land in the northeast where they hope to crush the group.

The draft proposal estimates 40,000 to 50,000 internally displaced families totaling more than 200,000 people would flee the war zone. The “welfare villages” would be set up to house them for two to three years, the report said.

After being searched for weapons, the war refugees are being taken to 15 temporary transit camps located in schools and other buildings just south of the de facto state the rebels once ruled in a region known as the Vanni.

The government initially barred aid workers from the transit camps without explanation but has given them far more access in recent days as the need for international assistance grew.

The government eventually plans to move all the civilians into five more permanent camps south of the war zone.

Rights groups and analysts have raised a number of concerns over the plan.

Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Center for Policy Alternatives think tank said a long stay in displacement camps could frustrate the displaced, exacerbate ethnic tensions and “lead to a strong reinforcement of Tamil nationalism.” In December, Human Rights Watch criticized the government’s treatment of the fleeing civilians, saying it was arbitrarily detaining them in camps that were little better than prisons.