Conf. 795 Blog Post #2: IDPs in Sri Lanka

IDPs of Sri Lanka

Per Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) up to 90,000 of the 800,000 people forced to flee during Sri Lanka’s civil war between 1983 and 2009 remain internally displaced, with tens of thousands more having returned, but unable to find long term solutions.
One third of the IDPs cannot return because their homes and land remain occupied by the military – whose presence has been justified by the government as a means of preventing a resurgence of the conflict.
Random visits and interrogations leave IDPs and those who have returned home in a state of fear. With many male family members killed, disappeared or detained, women and girls in particular are vulnerable to sexual harassment and violence from military personnel.

Discuss: whose responsibility is it to provide security for those who have returned?


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    • Hilary on February 6, 2014 at 11:33 pm
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    I think this is a really interesting topic and I have both studied and worked on/in Sri Lanka. I believe that the responsibility for providing security should on the shoulders of the government. As specified in the Brookings-Bern reading on Resolving Internal Displacements, it is quoted from the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement that “competent authorities have the primary duty and responsibility to establish conditions, as well as provide the means, which allow internally displaced persons to return voluntarily, in safety, and with dignity…” (pg. 8). The complication in the Sri Lanka context however is twofold in that first, the LTTE separatists suffered a total defeat by the Sinhalese Rajapaksa regime and secondly, that the front lines of the conflict were in Tamil-majority areas and thus the IDP population is almost exclusively Tamil (though some of the Muslim minority also suffers a similar plight). The crux of the problem is that there is very little impetus for the government to protect these IDPs while they continue to exploit their dominance and keeping this population disenfranchised, claiming, as you aptly put it, that their behavior is justified as a “means of preventing resurgence of the conflict”. Additionally, there is hardly any political leverage that the U.S. and other countries can use to exert influence over the GoSL to make progress on this and other issues. Sri Lanka has found a strong ally in China and has little need for US and other aid that comes with strings attached. Even the 2012 U.S. backed UN Resolution concerning alleged human rights abuses on the part of the GoSL has done little to spur any significant policy change concerning the IDP issue. Unfortunately, I don’t see any durable solution coming down the pike anytime soon.

  1. Hillary,
    Thank you for sharing your insights on the aftermath of Sri Lanka’s civil war. The issues of IDPs linger on for many years/decades after ceasefire.

    • Claudine Kuradusenge on February 7, 2014 at 1:39 am
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    In an ideal world, the government should be the one responsible to the safety of its citizens. Unfortunately, as you point it out, the Sri Lankan government is taking advantage of the situation and ignoring the problem. On a moral stand, Human Rights activists and NGOs are responsible to put pressure on the government and its allies to find a solution to reintegrate the IDPs into the society. According to Human Rights Watch, “the government targeted civil society through threats, surveillance, and clampdowns on activities and free speech…the government continued to ignore the 2011 report of the panel of experts appointed by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon…” Knowing that the government is not only oppressing the IDPS, but any opponent, the international community has the responsibility and duty to help Sri Lankan.
    It might be naive of me to think that UN or any other transnational organization will react, especially knowing that China is a Sri Lankan ally, but, given that Sri Lankan government is not only targeting IDPs, it is everyone’s responsibility to put pressure on our government to stop focusing on interests and start applying the Universal Declaration of Human Rights it signed. Hopefully, by pressuring our government, we can influence it to boycott or put pressure on Sri Lanka and/or its allies. And MAYBE, things will change with time.

    • Brad Davis on February 7, 2014 at 4:41 pm
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    On November 22, 2013, I met with the Sri Lankan Permanent Representative to the United Nations at the Sri Lankan Mission in New York. He happily explained, as would be expected, return and reintegration of Tamil IDPs has gone very well. Under the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, the host country, in this case Sri Lanka, is clearly responsible to ensure and facilitate right of return to include security. Sri Lanka, however, is receiving assistances foreign assistance, from both governmental and non-governmental organizations, with resettling approximately 280,000 IDPs. For example, USAID awarded funding in 2012 to ZOA Refugee Care, Sewalanka, and Practical Action to assist the Sri Lankan government in resettling Tamil IDPs.(1)

    The Sri Lankan government insists the Sri Lankan security forces will continue to assist the resettled IDPs. During the resettlement process, the security forces provided a host of food, shelter, medical, and social welfare services to the IDPs.(2) Now the IDPs have largely return, it is incumbent on the Sri Lankan government to continue providing support to include security. The true measure of success will be the transition in the delivery of social services from the security forces to local governmental institutions followed by the redeployment of the Sri Lankan military.

    1. U.S. welcomes IDP resettlement. (2012, Oct 19). Targeted News Service. Retrieved from

    2. All IDPs resettled. (2012, Sep 25). Targeted News Service. Retrieved from

    • Aloysius on February 7, 2014 at 8:12 pm
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    In the ideal situation, the government of Sri Lanka is supposed to protect the returnees. They are Sri Lankans and like any other Sri Lankan, the duty to protect its citizens lies with the government. However, the government is not doing so and therefore, the international community must step in. My main concern is how the international community is going to protect the returnees in a hostile environment.

    • Catherine Walsh on February 8, 2014 at 3:53 pm
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    As we discussed yesterday, and saw in many of our readings, the issues of IDP are considered a national issue – with the national government holding responsibility, rather than the international community. Legally, it is not the responsibility of the international community to handle the crisis – however, the international community should put pressure on the government. This idea was discussed – how the UN Convention’s laws and policies are outdated in many ways – one of the main ways is in terms of IDPs. Additionally, local NGO’s should also place pressure on the government.

  2. Brad,

    You present an interesting case. However, there are a lot of discrepancies here. Firstly, I don’t think it is a coincidence that the UN representative, who was appointed by the Rajapaksa regime, painted such a positive picture of the IDP situation.

    Sri Lanka is receiving bi-lateral humanitarian assistance, however, at least on the U.S. side, there has been no new humanitarian assistance appropriated for Sri Lanka since fiscal year 2011. When I was there last February and met with ZOA, IOM (International Organization for Migration), and others, the message was clear – that the government was making it extremely difficult for these organizations to provide assistance to these vulnerable populations. All programming in the north and east has to be approved by a presidential task force. Access to IDP camps is severely restricted, and activities targeting Tamils are under constant surveillance (I witnessed this first hand).

    As for IDPs being returned: most may no longer be in camps, but they are not being returned from where they came. A lot of land is still under control of the military and there are even reports of whole groups of IDPs being resettled on land that has not been completely demined.

    This report from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center was just released this week, and provides fairly accurate and up to date information on the Sri Lankan IDP situation.$file/201402-ap-sri-lanka-overview-en.pdf

    • Adnan Hurreh on February 8, 2014 at 9:06 pm
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    The responsibility for the protection of IDPs belongs to the Sri Lanka governement. The guiding Principles in the Internal Displacement underscore this point,clearing establishing the rights of IDPs protection belongs in the jurisdiction of the national government. If the government fails in this endeavor then i would agree with my colleagues that NGO’S, non governmental organization and the international community at large must come together to place preasure on any government that fails to protect of their citizenry .

    • Kaitlyn on February 8, 2014 at 10:48 pm
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    For internally displaced persons, the primary responsibility lies with the state. The military remain in the area to which people have returned to prevention conflict; it seems unlikely that any place that requires a military presence is stable enough for IDPs to return safely. Also, the privilege the military seem to have there suggests that in addition to physical security, the returned Sri Lankans have a psychological sense of security. Also, with 1/3 of their homes being occupied by the military, how is that a safe and just return?

  3. Bottom line: it is the government’s responsibility to provide security for the formerly displaced people. Though the government prides itself with finding “homes” for the majority of the IDPs, there are still many troublesome issues these people are facing. During the war, most of the IDPs who came from the north (Mannar, Mullaitivu, and Kilinochi areas) are now living in the Puttalam district for many years, still feeling displaced within the host communities. I know Embassy officials in Colombo who have met with these people in Puttalam many times within the past year to discuss resettlement issues-many continue to feel they don’t belong anywhere. These people are moved to relocation sites or welfare centers because the army now occupies their lands of origin. The government provides these people with zero information on any entitlements or compensation for their lands that were seized by the military. The resettled IDPs have complained about inadequate housing, water, sanitation, or facilities to maintain a decent livelihood. Not enough humanitarian assistance reaches the returnees in the northern areas due to military restriction. These issues and many more illustrates that the government has shown little meaningful effort to genuinely help the returnees in the long run.

  4. As many have said already, it is the state’s responsibility to protect the returnees. Unlike refugees, IDPs are not protected by international law (1951 Convention). The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement identifies rights relevant to IDPs during displacement, integration, and resettlement BUT they are not binding. It is up to individual governments to incorporate these principles into national law. If the government does not or cannot assume responsibility, one avenue could be the international community. If the Guiding Principles are respected by the Sri Lankan government (which they appear not to be), they should at least allow humanitarian organizations to provide assistance. Given the number of refugees who cannot return, I believe the ideal outcome would be a collaboration between the state and the international community. However, based on Hilary’s comments, this seems unlikely.

    • Aleia Elnaeim on February 9, 2014 at 4:10 am
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    I believe that security issues should be a collective responsibility between the government, the “justified” militants, and assistance from the international community and NGOs. Hypothetically, the government should be responsible of the safety and security of its citizens, though obviously this is not the case in Sri Lanka. According to International Civil Society Action Network for Women Rights and Security, the availability of weapons increase the level of violence against women, girls, and children, therefore I think all actors should play a specific role in protecting the IDPs,

    • Joseph Yarsiah on February 9, 2014 at 12:58 pm
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    Security and protection for returnees is the responsibility of the host state. It is no longer an international issue except in certain circumstances [where there is a direct threat to returnees by host country security forces, with evidence]. A key to way to looking at security of returnees is to examine the host nation over security situation. Can they provide security for the people already on the ground? Most often, host nations are post-conflict societies struggling with many challenges including national security. In some cases, the UN peacekeepers [if stationed] provide overall national security over a period of time as part of an international agreement and agenda, helped with returnees’ resettlement and security, while helping to rebuild a new national army. There is hardly a special separate security set up simply for returnees.

    When my family returned to Liberia from refugee camps Sierra Leone in 1991, there were UN peacekeepers mending the peace at the time. However, we still did not feel safe. Domestic violence and other forms of insecurities were frequent and consistent. Even with international peacekeepers, their ‘authority of engagement’ is limited and required international approval which could late and detrimental if there was a security emergency. The best way we felt safe was to join the community [the people that stayed], and step up a ‘vigilant’ groups or ‘community watch teams’. All ‘able’ young men had to join and we all had some basic training and code signs for patrol. We had flashlight and one family will provide hot tea or coffee where those on patrols would stop every hour for a drink. Any suspicious person walking around after dark who could not respond to the security code [changed every night] with the right security password was deemed a threat to the community. The UN peacekeepers assigned to our community were instantly alerted.

    The security of returnees is not going to be special except in extreme circumstances where they are being targeted because they are returnees. In my experience, they will have to join the community and work as a team for their own security and that of the group and their safety as a community at large. This also helps the reintegration process and build peace between the returnees and the new host community.

    Maybe this may not apply to Sri Lanka, maybe it does.

    • ann on February 9, 2014 at 1:41 pm
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    I believe that the government of Sri Lanka and the international community, to the extent that they are able to participate, are responsible for providing security for those that have returned. It would behoove the government of Sri Lanka to allow a third party security force in to protect the returning IDPs because they would be more impartial than the military itself and make the IDPs feel more comfortable with the return.

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