Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 January 2018, 20:36 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1997 - Sri Lanka

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 January 1997
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1997 - Sri Lanka, 1 January 1997, available at: [accessed 18 January 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
There were an estimated 900,000 internally displaced persons in Sri Lanka at the end of 1996. Many had been displaced for years and lived in established welfare centers run by the Sri Lankan government. Several hundred thousand were displaced more recently, following three major government offensives between October 1995 and July 1996. Some 7,000 Sri Lankans also fled to India during the year, joining some 55,000 other Sri Lankan refugees already living in refugee camps there and as many as 40,000 others living in urban centers in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Some 200,000 to 300,000 Sri Lankans were said to be in Europe and North America either as residents, refugees, asylum seekers, rejected asylum seekers, or without documentation.

A large majority in all of the above groups (the internally displaced, refugees, and those in the West) were ethnic Tamil Hindus, though the displaced included several thousand Muslims and a relatively small number of Buddhist Sinhalese (the majority group in Sri Lanka).

Background In January 1995, a cease-fire took effect between the Sri Lankan military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a rebel group that seeks independence or autonomy for Tamil-majority areas in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. The cease-fire, the first since 1990, raised hopes for peace between the LTTE and the government of President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge, who had pledged during her 1994 presidential campaign to end the conflict. However, on April 19, 1995, the LTTE pulled out of peace talks and resumed hostilities.

In August 1995, in an effort to address some longstanding Tamil grievances, the government called for transferring responsibility for many government functions from the central government to eight elected regional councils, though the central government would retain authority over defense, foreign affairs, and national planning. The proposal met with mixed reactions, even among Tamils. The LTTE did not return to the negotiating table, however.

The Sri Lankan military's October 1995 offensive resulted in the military's capture of Jaffna, Sri Lanka's second largest city and for many years the main stronghold of the LTTE. Virtually the entire population of Jaffna city and surrounding areas evacuated in advance of the military offensive. They did so to escape the fighting and the Sri Lankan military, or, as a number of observers have said, because the LTTE ordered an evacuation of the city.

New Displacement At the beginning of 1996, some 850,000 persons were internally displaced in Sri Lanka. In April, the Sri Lankan military launched another offensive in which it largely captured the rest of the Jaffna Peninsula. Many of the displaced residents of Jaffna who had sought refuge in the eastern peninsula returned to Jaffna at that time. Other displaced persons from Jaffna fled south into LTTE-controlled areas of the Wanni, or jungle area, in the north of the main island of Sri Lanka. Thousands of residents of eastern Jaffna also fled to the Wanni.

In May, USCR published a report on the situation of the newly displaced, The People in Between: Sri Lankans Face Long-Term Displacement As Conflict Escalates, which said:

The effect of the new wave of violence has been to stymie peace efforts and to polarize ethnic relations even further. In Colombo, USCR could sense the climate for ethnic reconciliation rapidly eroding. The violence has strengthened the nationalist element that...had consistently advocated a military response to the situation.... Some Tamils who had been strong supporters of Kumaratunge and her peace efforts expressed anger and became hardline.

USCR's report added that while the situation of the newly displaced had stabilized somewhat and food and other supplies were reaching them, they were still "treated as pawns, caught in a continuing struggle for control over any aspect of their lives."

The Sri Lankan military went on the offensive again in July, capturing much of Kilinochchi town and surrounding areas. The residents of Kilinochchi, as well as the tens of thousands of displaced persons from Jaffna who had sought refuge there, fled the city, moving deeper into LTTE-controlled areas of the Wanni, where their situation soon developed into an emergency.

A number of concerns were brought to USCR's attention regarding the conditions for displaced persons in the Wanni, including reports of inadequate food, medical supplies, and lack of shelter. In August, USCR requested permission from the Sri Lankan government to visit Sri Lanka, including Jaffna and the Wanni. The government eventually agreed to USCR's site visit to Sri Lanka, which took place in November.

Returnees in Jaffna There were some 400,000 people living in Jaffna in November; however, some observers said that a large number were not living in their own houses. Although destruction was widespread, and the military presence pervasive, a number of shops were open for business, people walked and cycled along the streets, and children went to school. Food was not abundant, but it was available; the hospital was functioning, although it had limited personnel and resources.

Jaffna residents' lives are dominated by security concerns: checkpoints, passes, curfews, restrictions. Many people appeared to live in fear. There was little employment; many people were dependent on food aid. And there was much hopelessness. Many people could not envision a peaceful and lasting solution to the conflict. As one woman in Jaffna told USCR, "I think the situation will remain like this until I die."

People's freedom of movement from Jaffna was highly restricted. As many as 30,000 people had asked the government for permission to leave Jaffna, but the only routes south were by ship or military plane and, on average, only 45 civilians were allowed to travel by those means per day.

Relations between the military and the civilian population were generally poor, though they fluctuated. Virtually everyone USCR spoke to in Jaffna said that after the displaced returned to Jaffna in April 1996, the government and military appeared to pursue a policy of trying to "win the hearts and minds" of the people. Soldiers were often on good behavior toward civilians, and although there were serious problems, the level of day-to-day tension was moderate.

That changed for the worse after July 4, when several people died during an LTTE attempt to assassinate the Sri Lankan housing minister, who was visiting Jaffna. The attack had two effects: it made people realize that the LTTE was not gone from Jaffna and that the military could not prevent it from carrying out attacks; and it made soldiers wary and distrustful of civilians, whom they increasingly viewed as potential LTTE sympathizers.

An LTTE attack on a Sri Lankan military base at Mullaitivu later that month, in which more than 1,500 Sri Lankan soldiers died, further soured relations between the military and civilians in Jaffna. Soldiers' attitudes and behavior at the checkpoints deteriorated, disappearances increased, and the general level of tension and insecurity mushroomed.

The "disappearances" of a large number of people, many of them young people in their late teens and early twenties, caused much fear in Jaffna. Estimates of the number of missing people ranged from a few hundred to more than a thousand. Some were detained at military checkpoints, others picked up during "round-ups" carried out by the military. Disappearances peaked between July and September.

In November, members of the governmentappointed Human Rights Task Force visited Jaffna for the first time to investigate the disappearances. Hundreds of people, especially mothers of disappeared young people, lined up to present their cases to the task force. Subsequently, the Sri Lankan government announced that it would set up a national Human Rights Unit and local "citizens' committees" to investigate human rights abuses by the armed forces and police, and that the Ministry of Defense would appoint a special Board of Investigation comprised of senior officers to investigate the disappearances.

Fear of rape by soldiers was as pervasive as concern about disappearances. Although only a handful of cases had been reported, residents said that rape was widespread.

People also feared the LTTE, which attacked not only military targets but also civilians who it believed had collaborated with the Sri Lankan military or government. LTTE attacks included a deadly form of intimidation known as "lamppost killings," in which the LTTE tied people to lampposts, shot them, and left their bodies for others to see.

The Wanni Displacement into and within the Wanni followed each of the three major government offensives in 1995-96. The third offensive, a July 1996 attack on Kilinochchi, caused that town's residents and the displaced staying there to flee. Many fled to other areas of Kilinochchi district; others fled into Mullaitivu district or beyond.

Estimates of both the number of displaced people and the total number of people currently living in the Wanni varied significantly. The central government and some other sources said that only some 400,000 people were living in the Wanni, of whom fewer than half were displaced. Other sources, including local government officials and the Tamil Relief Organization (TRO – an NGO that operates in LTTE-controlled areas), said there were more than 700,000 people in the Wanni, of whom 400,000 to 500,000 or more were displaced persons.

According to the TRO, more than 68,000 displaced persons were living in public buildings, such as schools, in the Wanni. Conditions in many of these shelters are abysmal. Those staying there, generally the most vulnerable of all people in the Wanni, were crowded together in unsanitary conditions and often did not receive any outside assistance. Most of the displaced had left the shelters, cleared land, and built temporary shelters for themselves and their families; some had moved to TRO-prepared settlement sites.

Continued fighting and shelling, and inadequate nutrition, water, health care, and shelter, all kept the displaced at risk. Lack of economic opportunities and education compounded their problems. Many children in the Wanni, including those displaced, do not attend school. Many school buildings have been converted into emergency shelters, often resulting in classes being suspended.

At the time of USCR's visit, significant malnutrition was not present in the Wanni and a majority of people had regular access to food, either through their own production, the market, or government aid. However, a large number of people (estimates varied remarkably widely, from 35,000 to 200,000) did not have regular access to food and were increasingly vulnerable. Inadequate health care was a serious problem. Only two small hospitals served the hundreds of thousands of people there. Conditions in both hospitals were alarming; doctors often had nothing with which to treat people.

The central government provided assistance, but much controversy existed regarding government aid. Some NGOs said that the government appeared to deliberately limit or delay aid to people in the Wanni to make life more difficult for those who chose to remain in LTTE-controlled areas.

The main security risk that displaced people in the Wanni noted was the danger of continued government shelling, and their fear of another Sri Lankan military offensive. People were also reportedly concerned that the LTTE might forcibly recruit their children.

Between July, when the Sri Lankan military seized Kilinochchi, and mid-October 1996, the Sri Lankan government encouraged displaced Tamils in the Wanni to move south to Vavuniya, but made it difficult for many actually to do so. On October 22, the government lifted restrictions on movement into Vavuniya. Some 14,000 people, mostly displaced persons, crossed into Vavuniya in a two-week period. Rather than screen the new arrivals and allow them to move on, however, the government instead detained them in a number of so-called welfare centers, where nearly 8,000 remained at the end of the year, living in conditions that USCR found inexcusably poor.

The Sri Lankan government estimated that there were some 780,000 internally displaced persons countrywide at the end of the year, including those who had been displaced for many years and were living in welfare centers or with friends and relatives in eastern and central Sri Lanka or Colombo. Because international and local NGOs and others said that the government undercounted the number of displaced persons in the Wanni by some 200,000, USCR estimated that there were more than 900,000 displaced persons in Sri Lanka.

Flight to India Tamil refugees have fled to India in several waves since 1983. The Sri Lankan refugee population in India reached a peak of 210,000 in 1991. In November 1996, more than 60,000 Sri Lankan refugees were living in more than 100 camps in southern India. An estimated 40,000 others were living outside the camps, mostly in cities across Tamil Nadu state.

In early 1992, the Indian government began repatriating Sri Lankan refugees, in some cases by force. Following international criticism, India temporarily halted the repatriation. Repatriations resumed in mid-1993 after India agreed to permit UNHCR a limited involvement, and continued on and off through 1995. During 1996, no Sri Lankan refugees repatriated from India with government or UNHCR assistance.

Some 7,000 Sri Lankans fled to India between July and December 1996. Most were from Jaffna and had originally fled their homes during the October 1995 government offensive. In the Wanni, they said that they found little chance of living normally, little safety from fighting, and no education for their children. The Sri Lankan government said that the LTTE had coerced or encouraged the refugees to go to India. It pointed to those allegations to justify its efforts to prevent would-be Sri Lankan refugees from reaching India. During October alone, the Sri Lankan navy intercepted nearly 300 people attempting to flee to India.

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