After six months of being held in detention camps, 130,000 Tamil internally displaced persons (IDPs) have been granted a basic human right – freedom of movement.
Conditions inside the huge camps were alarming: there were constant food and water shortages; poor sanitation; and when it rained the camps flooded, drains overflowed and diseases spread. On sunny days, the heat penetrated poor-quality tents, causing skin problems. No one was allowed to leave the camps, not even to find a family member in a nearby camp.
The decision to open the camps will undoubtedly be welcomed by the remaining displaced people. But it is the implementation of this decision that will determine its real impact. In the last few months, the numbers in the camps have dropped considerably as the government started returning and resettling people. But many IDPs have been sent back to villages where there are no hospitals, schools or other basic facilities. The people who have been allowed to go back to their homes or to stay with relatives also face several security restrictions limiting their movement.
It is also not yet clear how the military plans to monitor the movement of the IDPs, who are only allowed to leave for some days. It is also not known what the consequences would be if a person does not return to the camp. Could they be arrested? Or would a family member be held responsible? In the past few months in Sri Lanka, according to local human rights activists between 13,000 and 20,000 people have been arrested in the camps on suspicion of being involved with the LTTE. Enabling IDPs to move freely should not lead to other human rights violations such as arbitrary arrest, detention or disappearances.
This positive step by the Sri Lankan government comes as a result of months of international and local pressure. Displacement continues to be a huge issue in Sri Lanka. Apart from this group of IDPs, there are some 300,000 other people displaced through the course of the decades of war, including close to 100,000 ethnic Muslims. The government must find a solution to the serious problems faced by minorities in the country. Sri Lanka's 30-year-old conflict stemmed from the lack of minority rights protection – an issue that can't be ignored if the country is to achieve lasting peace.
Farah Mihlar works on this issue for Minority Rights Group International