BANGKOK, 10 September 2009 (IRIN) – Internally displaced persons (IDPs) in camps in Sri Lanka’s north will be released to their relatives, and the government expects the majority to be resettled by early next year, says a minister.
Sri Lanka’s Minister of Resettlement and Disaster Relief Services, Rishad Bathiudeen, told IRIN on 10 September that President Mahinda Rajapaksa had made the decision to allow the IDPs to live with their relatives, with effect from this week.
Bathiudeen said the government could not say how many people would be released, but that it would consider all applications from relatives outside the camps.
“If the application comes, we will attend to it,” said Bathiudeen.
The minister said authorities, including the police, would confirm the identities of people seeking the release of their relatives, according to an announcement posted on the government’s website on 9 September.
Proof of consent from the IDPs to live with their relatives was needed for release, he said.
Nearly 300,000 people who fled fighting in the final months of the 26-year civil war between the government and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are confined to the government-run camps.
The Sri Lankan government has said it is aiming to resettle about 80 percent of the refugees by year-end, and Bathiudeen said most people would be out of the camps by end-January.
“By the 31st of January … we will have more people resettled – the majority of people will be resettled,” he said.
The UN welcomed the decision to release the IDPs to their relatives.
“It’s something we’ve been advocating for some time, that it’s in the interest of the IDPs to be with relatives, where they can be looked after in a normal community. So we are extremely pleased with this announcement,” Neil Buhne, the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Sri Lanka, told IRIN from Colombo.
International rights groups have criticized the government for holding the IDPs, rather than releasing them to live with relatives or friends. The government has said it is trying to filter out LTTE rebels living in the camps, but rights groups argue that the IDPs are being illegally detained.
Aid workers have been critical of cramped and poor conditions in the camps, raising fears that next month’s monsoon season will aggravate the situation.
Figures supplied by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) show that in the northern district of Vavuniya, a number of camps are congested and over-capacity.
In one of the six zones of Menik Farm, the largest camp, there is capacity for 28,896 people, but 54,621 refugees are sheltering there.
“Any reduction in numbers in the camps will take the pressure off facilities, which are under a lot of strain, and will be under more strain in October and November, when the monsoon rains start,” said Buhne.
“The more people the government can allow out, the better,” he said.