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U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1998 - Sri Lanka

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 January 1998
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1998 - Sri Lanka, 1 January 1998, available at: [accessed 23 November 2017]
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.

At the end of 1997, about 100,000 Sri Lankans were refugees in India. Nearly 800,000 Sri Lankans were internally displaced. Sri Lanka hosted only 32 refugees, mostly Iraqis.

In March, a USCR report, Conflict and Displacement in Sri Lanka, called on the Sri Lankan government to investigate abuses against civilians in areas under government control. The USCR report also criticized Sri Lankan rebels for manipulating food aid.

Refugees from Sri Lanka Some 66,500 of the Sri Lankan refugees in India lived in government-assisted camps. Estimates of those outside the camps ranged from 30,000 to 60,000, the most frequently cited figure being 40,000. According to UNHCR, nearly 4,300 Sri Lankan refugees fled to India during 1997. In February, 165 refugees reportedly died when the boat carrying them to India overturned. No Sri Lankan refugees repatriated from India through formal UNHCR programs during the year.

European countries involuntarily returned nearly 300 rejected Tamil asylum seekers to Sri Lanka in 1997, including 215 Switzerland returned. An estimated 200,000 to 300,000 Sri Lankans were in Europe and North America either as residents, refugees, asylum seekers, rejected asylum seekers, or without documentation. A large majority of uprooted Sri Lankans are ethnic Tamil Hindus.

Internal Displacement The Sri Lankan government estimated 788,000 Sri Lankans were internally displaced. Some observers called that figure high because it included tens of thousands of people in and around the city of Jaffna who, though still receiving assistance because they had previously been displaced, were once again living in their homes or home areas. Other sources found the government estimate low, saying that the government had undercounted the number of persons displaced in areas outside government control. Both critiques were valid, but USCR considered the government's estimate reasonable.

Many displaced persons in government-controlled areas live in established, government-assisted "welfare centers." Those who are displaced in areas outside government control, particularly in the Wanni region of northern Sri Lanka, live in makeshift camps or struggle to survive by their own means.

During the year, tens of thousands of displaced persons moved from Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)-controlled areas of the Wanni to government-controlled areas. The LTTE did not attempt to prevent the crossings, but did levy a 200-rupee tax on those who applied to leave. Most of those leaving the Wanni returned to their homes in Jaffna, under government control since October 1995.

Displaced persons in the Wanni suffered many health problems. In January and February, 150 residents of centers for displaced people in the Wanni died from disease. In March, 58 people died in Mallavi and Kilinochchi hospitals, also in the Wanni, which lacked adequate medical supplies. More than 11,000 patients sought treatment in Mallavi hospital during March alone.

A new Sri Lankan military offensive in the western region of the LTTE-controlled Wanni area in February displaced more than 10,000 people. The aim of the offensive was to open a land route between government-held Vavuniya and the west coast town of Mannar. In March, Sri Lanka's governing People's Alliance (PA) party won a landslide victory in local elections held in many parts of the country (elections were not held in conflict areas in the north and east).

USCR's March 1997 report, based on a November 1996 site visit to India and Sri Lanka, including to Jaffna and LTTE-controlled areas of the Wanni, expressed concern about the number of people who had "disappeared" from Jaffna, soldiers' sexual harassment of women there, inadequate aid to displaced persons in the Wanni, and the detention of thousands of displaced persons in Vavuniya. It also criticized the LTTE for "manipulating government-provided food" yet "providing little relief itself."

USCR's report called on the government of Sri Lanka either to prosecute or to release any individuals that the military had detained and held incommunicado in Jaffna, to permit international and local NGOs to assist returnees in Jaffna, to provide adequate, timely assistance to displaced persons in the Wanni, and to "complete security screening of all of the [displaced] detainees [in Vavuniya] and allow all those who are cleared to move out of the detention centers to destinations of their choice."

In April, the PA and the main opposition party, the United National Party (UNP), agreed to adopt a bipartisan approach toward resolving the conflict with the LTTE.

The Sri Lankan military launched another major offensive in May aimed at opening a land route from government-controlled Vavuniya through the Wanni to Jaffna. A large number of civilians, many of them displaced persons, fled the area in advance of the offensive. The Sri Lankan government suspended food-aid delivery to the Wanni during the offensive. The LTTE reported that the suspension caused severe food shortages. The offensive displaced as many as 70,000 people, according to the Sri Lanka Monitor.

On May 22, USCR wrote to Sri Lanka's ambassador to the United States about the "worsening condition of internally displaced persons in the Wanni...following the recent government military offensive."

On May 29, the government issued a statement denying food shortages in most of the affected areas, but announced that it would resume food-aid deliveries. Government aid resumed at even lower levels than the government itself acknowledged were needed. The government suspended food delivery again on June 9, saying that no trucks were available in LTTE-controlled areas. The government blamed the truck shortage on the LTTE.

The disruptions and reduction in government food aid, and the LTTE's continued appropriation of food aid destined for civilians, took a toll on the Wanni's civilian population. According to the U.S. Department of State, "Nutrition levels were below the national average, and there were...hundreds of cases of malnourished children."

In July, the LTTE was allegedly responsible for the deaths of two Sri Lankan members of parliament, who were gunned down in separate incidents on July 5 and 20. Also in July, the LTTE destroyed a ship that the government had leased to transport displaced people back to Jaffna.

On August 5, UNHCR, which had agreed to the government's request that it escort ships carrying displaced persons back to Jaffna, expressed concern about the ship's destruction and the resulting suspension of the return program. The LTTE, which had rejected UNHCR's offer to escort the ship, criticized UNHCR's statement. The LTTE said that it would have agreed to UNHCR's escorting the ships if UNHCR had agreed to guarantee the safety of returnees in Jaffna,which UNHCR had not done. The government resumed limited returns by sea on August 11, without UNHCR escorts. According to UNHCR, the resulting backlog of people waiting to return to Jaffna caused "unrest among those waiting in the transit camps in Trincomalee, including a hunger strike."

Also in August, the UN special rapporteur on extra-judicial executions visited Jaffna and expressed concern about the number of persons "disappeared," mostly at the hands of the military. More than 600 people disappeared from Jaffna between mid-1996 and mid-1997. Most disappeared in July and August 1996, but 125 disappeared during the first half of 1997. As many as 540 of the disappeared are known to have been arrested by the army. According to Amnesty International, "nearly all of the [540] are likely to have died under torture or to have been deliberately killed in detention." The Sri Lankan government established commissions to investigate the disappearances, but with few results.

In September and October, in another unusual turn in the Sri Lankan conflict, the government and the LTTE demonstrated that they can cooperate on some issues. Both sides agreed to two temporary cease fires to permit a nationwide polio immunization program to proceed unhindered.

The LTTE suffered a blow to its international image when, in October, the U.S. government included the LTTE among 30 groups it designated as "foreign terrorist organizations." The designation made it illegal for anyone in the United States to provide funds or other material support to the LTTE and barred LTTE members from visiting the United States. On October 15, a major bomb explosion in central Colombo attributed to the LTTE killed 18 people, injured 110 others, and damaged large hotels and office buildings.

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