Last Updated: Monday, 20 November 2017, 14:55 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2000 - Sri Lanka

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 June 2000
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2000 - Sri Lanka , 1 June 2000, available at: [accessed 20 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.

Sri Lanka

At year's end, more than 500,000 Sri Lankans remained internally displaced. Another 110,000 Sri Lankans were refugees in India. Most Sri Lankan refugees and displaced persons were Hindu Tamils, though thousands of Muslims and Buddhist Sinhalese were also displaced. Sri Lanka hosted about 25 refugees, mostly Iraqis and Afghans.

Nearly 100,000 Sri Lankans were newly displaced during the year. A large majority were previously displaced persons who became uprooted yet again. Many returned to their homes or places of habitual displacement within weeks or months. More than 100 Sri Lankan refugees repatriated from India, and some 6,500 formerly displaced persons returned home.

During the 1990s, more than 170,000 Sri Lankans sought asylum in Europe and North America, including nearly 15,700 in 1999.

Internal Displacement

Sri Lankan refugees and displaced persons have been uprooted by a bloody, 16-year conflict that has claimed more than 60,000 lives. The conflict is between government forces that primarily represent Sri Lanka's Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The LTTE seeks independence for predominantly Tamil areas of northern and eastern Sri Lanka.

According to the U.S. Department of State, both the Sri Lankan armed forces and LTTE committed extrajudicial killings, including of prisoners of war. The Sri Lankan government temporarily detained nearly 2,000 Tamil civilians during the year, fifteen of whom "disappeared" while in military custody in Vavuniya and eastern Sri Lanka. The LTTE reportedly detained some 2,000 civilians in areas under its control.

According to the Sri Lankan government, 687,000 Sri Lankans were internally displaced at the end of 1999. However, that figure did not reflect the number of people actually displaced; rather, it reflected the number of people whom the government assisted, including formerly displaced persons who had returned home from other areas of the country who were unable to support themselves.

In the Jaffna area, most of the 269,000 persons whom the government listed as displaced were returnees living in their own homes. Since 1996, as many as 150,000 displaced persons have returned to Jaffna. Most fled Jaffna in late 1995, just before the government captured Jaffna from the LTTE.

The U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) did not consider returnees in Jaffna who were living in their own homes to be internally displaced. USCR counted as displaced only the approximately 64,000 returnees to Jaffna living in empty houses or with friends and relatives, and the 6,000 returnees still living in welfare centers. Although more than 100,000 people were newly displaced in 1999, USCR's end-of-year estimate does not include most of them either because they were already displaced people who became displaced again, or people who were able to return to their homes by year's end.

Developments during 1999

Some 6,500 displaced persons returned to Jaffna from the Wanni during the year. In order to return, displaced persons had to cross from LTTE-controlled areas in the Wanni into areas under government control. There they waited in transit centers, often for months, for the government to arrange their transportation to Jaffna, usually by sea. Once in Jaffna, many reoccupied their original homes, but others joined the ranks of displaced persons living in welfare centers, others' empty houses, or with friends and relatives. An estimated 14,000 persons who left the Wanni in hopes of returning to Jaffna or moving to Colombo or other areas of southern Sri Lanka remained in transit camps in Vavuniya and Mannar.

During 1999, the LTTE expanded its areas of control in the Jaffna peninsula. Clashes between government forces and the LTTE displaced some 25,000 people there.

In March, the government launched two offensives in the western Wanni that displaced more than 20,000 people. The first offensive, which began on March 4, displaced 4,000 local people from Iluppaikulam, Mundrumurippu, and nearby areas and 10,000 previously displaced persons who were also living in the area. On March 19, the Sri Lankan armed forces launched a second offensive that, according to the British Refugee Council's Sri Lanka Monitor, displaced some 5,000 people from Vidataltivu and Pappamoddai in Mannar District.

During that offensive, the government captured the town of Madhu, home to a UNHCR-run camp for displaced persons and Sri Lanka's most famous Catholic shrine, the 17th century Madhu Church. Although Madhu was an LTTE-stronghold for many years, the Tigers did not make a stand there. Rather, they vacated the area in advance of the Sri Lankan military's arrival. Consequently, there were no casualties associated with the military's takeover of the town and camp. Nevertheless, the operation displaced some 15,000 civilians. Some fled north from Madhu before the Sri Lankan troops arrived; others entered Madhu from outlying areas as the military advanced. That raised the population at the UNHCR camp and the number of civilians sheltered at the church to some 20,000.

After the Sri Lankan forces took control of the town, they began fortifying it, which drew protests from the Bishop of Mannar. He wrote to President Chandrika Kumaratunga, charging the military with risking the lives of the civilians sheltered at Madhu by using them as "human shields."

In April, the Sri Lankan authorities ordered the total evacuation of Madhu camp. UNHCR tried to make the evacuation orderly, and managed to transfer thousands of the camp's displaced residents to a center in Vavuniya that it had built several years ago as a transit camp for refugees returning from India. Other camp residents were hastily moved to less suitable locations. By May, the main Madhu camp was empty. However, some 3,000 displaced people living at Palampidi camp, a few kilometers from the main Madhu camp, remained there.

In May, Amnesty International launched a campaign to protest the LTTE's continued recruitment of child soldiers as young as 14. The LTTE had previously agreed to cease the practice.

Controversy resurfaced in mid-1999 regarding the Sri Lankan government's aid program for displaced persons living in LTTE-controlled areas. In June, the government captured LTTE territory north of the check point where food aid had passed from government-controlled territory into LTTE-controlled areas of the Wanni. The government proposed a new site for the checkpoint but demanded that the LTTE agree to a demilitarized zone five-miles long and one-mile wide surrounding it. That area, however, was entirely in LTTE hands. The LTTE was unwilling to relinquish control over the area.

The government would not establish a new checkpoint without the demilitarized zone, so the flow of food aid into LTTE-controlled areas remained blocked. Soon, NGOs working in the Wanni began to warn of severe shortages of food and medicine that were placing the civilian population at risk. In July, several people died because of the lack of medicines. A representative of Caritas Switzerland who visited the area reported that "the storehouses of the [food] distribution centers in the Wanni are empty...[and] the years-long chronic food shortage is threatening to become an acute famine."

The food shortages provoked massive demonstrations in the Wanni and other LTTE-controlled areas of Sri Lanka. In Mallavi, demonstrators blockaded the offices of UNHCR and various NGOs, trapping the agencies' staff inside the premises for up to 15 days. Several thousand civilians and previously displaced persons migrated from the Wanni to government-run camps for displaced persons in Mannar. The two-month long impasse ended on August 9, when the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) negotiated an agreement between the government and LTTE that permitted the flow of food aid to resume.

In July, the LTTE assassinated prominent Tamil human rights activist Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam, a moderate who advocated dialogue over violence. Many observers believed that the LTTE assassinated Tiruchelvam to discourage other Tamils from dissenting from the LTTE. USCR, which had benefited from Dr. Tiruchelvam's assistance during visits to Sri Lanka, joined human rights groups worldwide in condemning his assassination.

More than 20 civilians were killed and 30 others injured when the Sri Lankan air force bombed the market in Puthukudiyiruppu village on September 15. The Sri Lankan government initially denied that the attack killed any civilians but later recanted, saying that the bombing was an accident.

Three days later, apparently in retaliation for the bombing, forces said to belong to the LTTE attacked three Sinhalese villages in eastern Sri Lanka, killing nearly 50 people, including 14 children. International organizations, including the United Nations, expressed concern over the incidents. Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar reportedly criticized the UN for speaking out about the incident, however, telling a Colombo newspaper that the UN had no right to comment on Sri Lanka's domestic problems and should limit its interest to "malaria and mosquitoes."

In early November, the LTTE launched a fierce counterattack against government forces in the Wanni. Within days, the LTTE recaptured not only areas previously given up to the government in March, but also many of the areas lost during the previous two or more years. The losses were among the Sri Lankan army's worst in the 16-year war. Although the government claimed to have lost only 100 soldiers, the LTTE reported having killed more than 1,000 government troops. President Kumaratunga later fired several senior military officials and ordered an investigation into the fiasco.

On November 10, as the LTTE advanced toward Vavuniya, it warned that it would soon attack the city, and ordered the city's 100,000-plus residents to evacuate. Although the Sri Lankan military, whose largest base in northern Sri Lanka is in Vavuniya, tried to persuade the city's residents to remain, an estimated 80 to 90 percent of the city's largely Tamil population fled. The Sri Lankan military did not permit the more than 10,000 displaced persons housed in welfare centers in Vavuniya to leave. It also barred relief groups from providing food aid to the tens of thousands of Vavuniya residents who abandoned the city. A week later, the LTTE rescinded the threat, and the city's inhabitants returned home.

The LTTE then advanced toward Madhu. Thousands of persons seeking to escape anticipated fighting sought safe haven in Madhu because both parties had historically respected the civilians and religious character of the church and its surroundings. The LTTE told UNHCR to transfer the 3,000 displaced residents of Palampidy camp to Madhu church, giving them an hour and a half to do so. Initially, government troops then based in Madhu blocked the road from Palampidy to Madhu, preventing the displaced from reaching the church. They later relented and allowed the displaced to proceed to the church. Shortly afterwards, however, the Sri Lankan military withdrew from Madhu. Days later, on November 20, government troops sought to reestablish their position in Madhu. They exchanged fire with LTTE troops advancing toward Madhu. A shell landed in the church, killing approximately 40 displaced civilians, including 13 children, and injuring nearly 60 others.

Responsibility for the attack could not be determined. The government and LTTE each blamed the other for the deaths. The U.K.-based Tamil Center for Human Rights said, "An armored column of Sri Lankan Army tanks opened fire on Madhu Church Shrine." However, following the incident, President Kumaratunga said, "The deaths of these refugees were caused by mortar attacks carried out by the LTTE directed at the Madhu Church." Later, in response to a USCR request for information regarding the incident, the Sri Lankan embassy wrote, "Government forces were not responsible for the deaths of civilians.... There was no reason for the government forces to direct shelling in a place where their own forces were deployed to protect civilians."

The Catholic Church, local human rights groups, and international organizations blamed both sides for having fought in the vicinity of the church despite knowing that thousands of civilians were sheltered there.

Although both government troops and the LTTE withdrew from the immediate area following the tragedy, they continued to fight in nearby areas, causing some 14,000 people to seek shelter again in Madhu in December. At year's end, some 17,000 displaced persons were massed there. UNHCR, which had withdrawn from Madhu following the shelling of the church, returned to assist the newly displaced population and the Palampidy camp residents still sheltered there.

Refugees from Sri Lanka

An estimated 110,000 Tamil refugees lived in India, including 5,000 who newly fled there in 1999. In September, 12 Sri Lankans fleeing to India drowned when their boat capsized.

According to UNHCR, nearly 138,000 Sri Lankans applied for asylum in Europe between 1990 and 1998. European governments recognized 18 percent as refugees and granted another 12 percent other forms of temporary refuge. During the same period, 31,000 Sri Lankan Tamils applied for asylum in Canada, which granted more than 80 percent of them refugee status. The United States granted refugee status to 18 percent of the 1,000 Sri Lankans who applied for asylum during the 1990s. In 1999, some 12,698 Sri Lankans applied for asylum in Europe, 2,915 applied in Canada, and 83 in the United States.

During the late 1990s, European governments increasingly returned rejected Tamil asylum seekers to Sri Lanka. Until May 1998, the Sri Lankan authorities temporarily detained many of the deportees upon arrival. They ceased the practice following protests from UNHCR and various governments.

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