Interned Tamil refugees face two-year wait to return home

International concern mounts after Red Cross denied access to camps

Thousands of Tamil civilians forced from their homes by the conflict in Sri Lanka could be interned in refugee camps for up to two years before they are permitted to return home, authorities in Colombo said.

And in a further revelation that will spark concern among the international community, the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) said that it had been forced to suspend its aid supply to the refugees after it was refused access to the camps.

"Yes, we have concerns. Yes, we are asking for access," said Paul Castella, the head of the ICRC delegation in Sri Lanka. The UN humanitarian chief John Holmes has also called for officials to be allowed into the camps.

A senior government official, Lakshman Hulugala, said more than 230,000 civilians were being held in camps, a figure the UN believes could rise.

He said screening so many people to identify rebels and resettling the northern area of the country would be a lengthy process. "Not all the people will be held for two years," he said.

Asked about the conditions in the camps, he said: "You cannot expect five-star hospitality in a place like that. We are providing the basics: food, security, health, schools and playgrounds. You cannot expect an Oxford college."

In his "victory" speech earlier this week to announce the end of the long-running civil war, President Mahinda Rajapaksa reached out to the Tamil community and said Sri Lanka must now work towards equality.

"Our intention was to save the Tamil people from the cruel grip of the [rebels]. We all must now live as equals in this free country," he said.

In an attempt to avoid that new era beginning with a Tamil Tigers (LTTE) revival, the government spokesman Mr Hulugala said that the body of the rebels' leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, would be cremated or buried in secret.

Mr Prabhakaran died in battle on Monday and the government will be keen to dampen efforts to portray him as a martyr. "The body will be treated like that of any other terrorist," Mr Hulugala said.

An important factor in building a new consensus will be resettling those held in the basic, shadeless camps where people complain about a lack of water. The camps are surrounded by razor wire, patrolled by armed guards and while some elderly refugees have been allowed to live with family members, the overwhelming majority are not permitted to leave.

Earlier this year when the Sri Lankan authorities revealed plans for "welfare villages" that would hold the refugees for three years, there was an immediate outcry from aid groups. The government backtracked and vowed that 80 per cent would be resettled within 12 months. The new revelation will trigger fresh concern.

"It's absolutely controversial," said a senior official with a Western aid organisation that works in Sri Lanka. "It's a big discussion point among the aid community. This will be of concern to the organisations and to the donors.

"What the international community is saying is that the government needs to do proper screening to separate those who might be LTTE. What is not acceptable is for the whole population to be incarcerated."

The government has begun screening the tens of thousands of Tamils that have poured from the war zone. Dozens have identified themselves as LTTE fighters and have been taken to rehabilitation camps. It is understood "hard core" suspects, accused of the most serious crimes, are being held in a detention camp near Boosse.

Campaigners have expressed mounting concern about three doctors who have been detained by the government, which claims they gave false information about war zone casualties to the media. Journalists were banned from the war zone and the doctors – Thurairaja Varatharajah, Thangamuttu Sathyamurthi and V Shanmugarajah – were among the few sources of information on civilian casualties and regularly spoke to the media organisations, including The Independent. Amnesty International says it believes Dr Shanmugarajah and Dr Sathyamurthi may be being held at the Terrorist Investigation Division in Colombo.

However, a detention order has not yet been issued so their relatives remain unsure of their whereabouts and they do not have access to a lawyer. Dr Varatharajah, the regional director of health services in Mullaitivu, was seriously injured and is reported to have been airlifted to an unknown destination.

Speaking from his home in Norway, Dr Shanmugarajah's brother-in-law, Suresh Kumar, said relatives were extremely worried about the doctor as well as his wife, Renuka, and their 14-month-old son, who are understood to be in a refugee camp.

Asked about government claims that the doctor was an LTTE supporter, Mr Kumar said: "They are trying to misinterpret things. He is a doctor. There were no other doctors in the area. When I spoke with him two weeks ago, I asked why he had not left. He said there were a lot of people in the hospital. He said he was a doctor and how could he leave the patients?"

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
love + sex
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Sport
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle 0 Man United 1: Last minute strike seals precious victory
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Seth Rogan is one of America’s most famous pot smokers
filmAmy Pascal resigned after her personal emails were leaked following a cyber-attack sparked by the actor's film The Interview
News
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb – the Israeli PM shows his ‘evidence’
people
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
News
i100
Life and Style
A statue of the Flemish geographer Gerard Kremer, Geradus Mercator (1512 - 1594) which was unveiled at the Geographical Congree at Anvers. He was the first person to use the word atlas to describe a book of maps.
techThe 16th century cartographer created the atlas
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: UI / UX Designer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm are focussed on assis...

Recruitment Genius: General Processor

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a General Processor ...

Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - B2B

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot