Some 110,000 Sri Lankans were refugees in India in 1998, and more than 560,000 Sri Lankans were internally displaced in 1998. Tens of thousands of other Sri Lankans have sought asylum or migrated to Europe and North America. Sri Lanka hosted only 28 refugees, mostly Iraqis and Afghans.

A majority of Sri Lankans are Buddhist Sinhalese. However, the vast majority of Sri Lankan refugees and internally displaced persons are Hindu Tamils. Most Sri Lankan Tamils live in the country's North and East. Several thousand Muslims who lived in northern Sri Lanka are also displaced. Sri Lankan refugees and displaced persons have been uprooted due to a bloody, 15-year conflict between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, also known as the Tamil Tigers), and government forces.

Refugees from Sri Lanka

Some 70,000 of the 110,000 Tamil refugees in India lived in refugee camps. An estimated 40,000 others lived outside the camps. According to UNHCR, 3,839 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees fled to India during 1998. On July 26, a boat carrying about 50 refugees capsized; 40 of the refugees drowned. In October, the Sri Lankan Navy intercepted a boat carrying 48 Tamils trying to reach India. They handed over the would-be refugees to the police, who sent them to a center for displaced persons.

European countries involuntarily returned more than 500 rejected Tamil asylum seekers to Sri Lanka during 1998. In August, Denmark became the third European nation to sign an agreement with Sri Lanka facilitating such deportations. Sri Lankan Tamil human rights workers opposed the deportations, saying that the returnees were at risk.

The Sri Lankan authorities temporarily detained many of the deportees upon arrival. They ceased the practice in May, following protests from UNHCR and various governments. UNHCR stated that it received no other reports of "discriminatory treatment of this group of returnees."

Internal Displacement

The Sri Lankan government estimated that 657,000 Sri Lankans were internally displaced, of whom some 335,800 were displaced in the Jaffna region. However, the government's figures included more than 96,000 people in Jaffna who had already returned home, but who continued to receive government assistance because they could not support themselves. USCR considered those persons to be war-affected, not internally displaced. Thus, USCR estimated the displaced population in Sri Lanka at the end of 1998 at approximately 560,000.

Some 164,000 displaced Sri Lankans lived in established "welfare centers" in government-controlled areas, including Jaffna. The remainder lived with relatives and friends. Some of the displaced in areas outside government control, particularly in the Wanni region of northern Sri Lanka, lived in temporary shelters or makeshift camps.

The Sri Lankan government provided aid to displaced persons living in LTTE-controlled areas, despite evidence that the LTTE manipulated food aid. The government has been praised over the years for its commitment to assist displaced persons who may oppose it politically. However, the LTTE and advocates for the displaced have long complained that the government provides insufficient assistance and exploits the aid it provides for its own benefit.

During 1998, considerable controversy arose over the government's decision to reduce food aid to displaced persons in the Wanni. The government and some observers argued that there were ample food supplies in the Wanni and that the government needed only to supplement those. Others argued that there were severe food shortages and that the reduction in food aid had harmed the population, especially children.

Tens of thousands of displaced persons moved from LTTE-controlled areas of the Wanni to areas under government control during the year (the government estimated their number at more than 110,000). They left the Wanni because of the difficult living conditions that persist there, or because they wanted to return to their homes in Jaffna, which has been under government control since late 1995. Many who wanted to return to Jaffna did so with government assistance. Some returned to their original homes, while others joined the ranks of displaced persons in Jaffna living in welfare centers or with friends and relatives. Logistical difficulties prevented others from returning to Jaffna, and at year's end they remained waiting in Vavuniya, Trincomalee, and other government-controlled areas.

In February, the National Peace Council, an NGO, called the situation in the Wanni desperate. It reported that out of a sample of 36,515 patients in the Mullaitivu District reporting fever, 16,936 tested positive for malaria and 3,239 had cerebral malaria, which damages the brain. It added that typhoid was rampant, and that in some areas 40 percent of children suffered third- degree malnutrition. The Council accused both sides of using civilians as pawns in the war. In April, UNHCR pledged $4.9 million to meet emergency needs of displaced people in the North and to facilitate the return and re-integration of the displaced.

The government established several new camps for displaced persons in May. The camps, in Mannar District, were built to house displaced persons who had left the Wanni. The Government Agent (GA) in Mannar reported that several thousand displaced persons were exiting LTTE-controlled areas of the Wanni each month. In mid-August, the LTTE imposed new restrictions on the movements of people out of areas under their control.

According to Agence-France Presse, in July the government cut dry food rations to displaced persons in the Wanni area by as much as 57 percent. Thousands of persons marched to the UNHCR office to protest the cuts. They asked UNHCR to press the Sri Lankan government to restore the aid. The Sri Lankan government denied claims that there were food shortages in the Wanni or any other regions of Sri Lanka. It accused the LTTE of carrying out a campaign of misinformation.

In November, in response to continued criticism, the government again insisted that it continued "to strictly follow the established practice of regularly supplying adequate food and essential items to the cleared [government-controlled] as well as uncleared areas of Wanni. This is despite a commonly known occurrence that LTTE terrorists siphon away a substantial part of the food supplies in order to feed their terrorist cadres."

A new Sri Lankan government military offensive in December displaced more than 15,000 people from Oddusuddan, some 30 miles northeast of Vavuniya. The displaced fled heavy artillery shelling by the army. Some 9,300 took shelter in ten school buildings in nearby towns still under LTTE control. According to Sri Lankan government sources, most new displacement during the year was temporary. They said that most people displaced in connection with military operations later returned to their homes.

Conflict during the Year

In January, LTTE suicide bombers were reportedly responsible for an attack on the Temple of the Tooth Relic, the holiest Buddhist site in Sri Lanka. The attack resulted in the deaths of 12 people, including two children. Following the attack, the government formally outlawed the LTTE and enacted legislation that banned all contact with the group. However, the ban excluded international NGOs engaged in humanitarian relief in war-affected regions.

In February, the LTTE rammed and sank two Sri Lankan Navy vessels off the Jaffna Peninsula; 51 soldiers aboard died. The LTTE bombed a bus in Colombo in March, killing several dozen people and wounding 300 others.

LTTE and government security forces battling for control over the main road through northern Sri Lanka clashed repeatedly during the year. Thousands of soldiers, rebels, and civilians died in the battle, one of the bloodiest in the war's history. Tamil sources reported that the government's military campaign, Operation Jayasikuru (Sure Victory), displaced more than 80,000 people between May and June.

A mass grave that human rights activists believed might hold the bodies of hundreds of "disappeared" civilians was discovered in Chemmany in July. More than 700 Tamil civilians disappeared from Jaffna in the months after Sri Lankan government forces took control of the city in 1995. The government ordered a full investigation. The site had not been excavated by year's end. Some observers accused the government's Human Rights Commission (charged with overseeing the inquiry) of foot dragging.

In September, the LTTE regained control of Killinochchi, one of the most important towns in the Wanni region of northern Sri Lanka. About 1,900 soldiers died and 2,000 were wounded during the battle for the town. Some Colombo lawmakers declared the loss the "worst disaster [the government] has faced."

The government abandoned Operation Jayasikuru in November, reportedly because of its heavy losses. However, in December, the government began a new offensive reportedly aimed at gaining control of Mullaitivu District, an LTTE stronghold. The army captured the town of Oddusuddan, northeast of Vavuniya.

Human rights activists protested the army's continued use of artillery and air strikes during military operations in the Wanni. They said that shelling and air strikes killed numerous civilians during the year.

Political Developments

In January, the government held the first elections in Jaffna in 17 years. Jaffna was under LTTE control for many years before the government recaptured it in late 1995. It was under military administration between 1995 and January 1998. Some overseas Tamil groups criticized the election, labeling it an attempt by the government to legitimize its "occupation" of the North. The government, however, extolled the elections as a step toward a return to civilian administration of the region.

Sarojini Yogeswaran, the widow of a member of Parliament who had been killed by the LTTE, won the January mayoral election. Four months later, the LTTE assassinated Yogeswaran. The LTTE also killed Yogeswaran's successor in a bomb attack on the mayor's office in September. Several other civilian leaders and military personnel also died in the blast.

In a move that some observers viewed as anti-NGO, in March the government gave the Minister of Social Services greater power to intervene in the affairs of nongovernmental organizations. That same month, the government asked Peace Brigades International (PBI), an international NGO that provides accompaniment to civilians at risk, to submit all its reports to the government for "editing" purposes. PBI refused and instead closed its office in Sri Lanka.

The government also instituted censorship of both local and foreign news media. It required that all media coverage of the conflict pass a military censor.

The UN's Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict visited Sri Lanka in May. He sought assurances from both the government and the LTTE that they would not recruit children under the age of 17 and would not use children under the age of 18 in combat. The UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions also continued to express concern over the excessive and arbitrary use of force by Sri Lankan security forces. In December, the Sri Lanka Monitor said, "With such emphasis on the war, hopes of peace initiatives...are fading."


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