|Government services to all in Sri Lanka and especially to Internally Displaced Persons|
|Monday, 08 December 2008|
5 December 2008
Continuing commitment to social services islandwide
Because of multiple displacement for various reasons over the last two decades, discussion on the status of Internally Displaced Persons in Sri Lanka has suffered from a number of complications. These have not affected the delivery of assistance to the displaced, since the Government of Sri Lanka has acted on the assumption that it was best to provide assistance without any stinting. Thus it has provided relief to the largest possible number declared to be in need.
It should also be noted also that, in addition to ensuring that essential goods are both available and affordable, Government has continued to provide free social services to all its citizens, including those in areas controlled by the LTTE. With regard to education and health obviously there is no distinction between displaced and others, and free services have been provided to all citizens, inclusive even of LTTE military cadres,in conformity with policy nationwide. The manner in which the LTTE treats such services was apparent from the recent rescue of a trained teacher forced to fight for the LTTE, in order as she put it to prevent her younger siblings from being conscripted. She had been trained as an English teacher at the prestigious Kopay Training College, and even though she was sent to the battle lines, government continued to pay her salary.
Feeding all those for whom it is requested
That such aberrations went on was not unknown to Government. With regard to the services and in particular food that it provides specially to the displaced, the Government has always known that figures were exaggerated, for obvious reasons in the areas that were under the control of the LTTE. The LTTE clearly benefited from the extra rations that were sent up. They thus put pressure on the junior Government officials responsible for the figures, and did not encourage any reduction in numbers, thus ensuring that Government and aid agencies provided assistance and relief supplies far above the actual requirement. The discovery in military use of life saving equipment provided through Save the Children is a case in point, though as clearly stated by them, Save the Children was not responsible for this hijacking of humanitarian assistance. With regard to food of course the word hijacking would be inappropriate, since denying food to the hungry would not have been possible – but the fact that such assistance did go to LTTE fighting forces should not be ignored.
The Government has not felt it reasonable, given the pressures on its officials, to insist on precision. Requests were made to international agencies to clarify matters, but evidently such agencies too were under pressure, and relied on statistics provided by officials. Thus, while the Government has kept urging greater precision (and there has been some response, as for instance in the revelation earlier in 2008 that there had been double counting of some 40,000 in a particular area), it continued, with the assistance of the UN World Food Programme, to supply whatever was required, with no effort whatsoever – albeit doubtless due to duress exercised by the LTTE - by those who might have monitored the situation effectively to ensure accuracy..
Support for IDPs created by the LTTE before 2005
One reason for the excess was the system of keeping count, which distinguished between Old IDPs (those displaced before December 2005) and New IDPs (those displaced from 2006 onward). This was mainly because of different responsibilities for assistance, but it also served to make clear the magnitude of the problem this Government had inherited. There were reasons for previous Governments not dealing systematically with the problem, but these had largely to do with the fact that those old IDPs had been created because of LTTE offensives, including the ethnic cleansing through forced eviction of Muslims from the North.
Given that earlier Governments assumed that a negotiated solution to the political conflict required the goodwill of the LTTE, it was understandable that they did not want to tread on LTTE toes. It is nevertheless sad, given the continuing plight of IDPs in the Northern Province (the numbers, including in the Puttalam District, to which many Muslims chased out of the North by the LTTE came, amount to over 315,000 of the nearly 350,000 of old IDPs noted in the figures provided by regional officials), that nothing was done for them, even during what was supposed to be the Ceasefire Period between 2002 and 2005.
Swift resettlement of IDPs in the East
Between 2006 and 2007 the number of IDPs in the East rose very swiftly, but this was because of the liberation operation conducted by Sri Lankan forces, which provided early warning to the populations in those areas of movements, in accordance with its absolute commitment to safeguard civilian lives. Thus there were no reports of civilian casualties during operations (except one incident caused by fire from mortar locating radars, following an LTTE offensive from a welfare centre in Kathiravelli), and in fact resettlement of the IDPs was swift and successful (as certified by UNHCR) following the liberation of the East. Thus there are now under 30,000 New IDPs in the East, along with 10,000 Old IDPs, figures that go down all the time.
Continuing provisions to LTTE controlled territory
In contrast, there were reportedly 50,000 New IDPs in Kilinochchi and 32,000 in Mullaitivu as at 31st May 2008, when the recent offensives to liberate the North commenced. These were supposedly on top of 31,000 and 76,000 Old IDPs respectively. However it has never been clear as to whether these groups were distinct, ie whether those who moved after 2006 were counted again without being reduced from the original figure.
However, as noted, Government continued to provide food for all of these, amounting to a total of 190,000 altogether. To these should be added 25,000 (New) and 16,000 (Old) in Mannar and 13,000 (New) and 53.0000 (Old) in Vavuniya, some portions of which were under LTTE control. Numbers in the Jaffna District were nearly 100,000 altogether, but since only a small portion of this was under LTTE control it was easier to ensure that there was no double counting.
Taking the Vanni as a whole then (including Kilinochchi in the official Vanni, namely the whole of Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu and Vavuniya), Government was providing food to almost 300,000 persons before the current offensives began.
The current situation
Currently (October tentative figures, though there have been changes since), according to figures provided by both the Ministry of Nation Building and UNHCR (both deriving ultimately from government officials in the districts), there are 149,000 IDPs in Kilinochchi and 118,000 in Mullaitivu. The UNHCR records these as arising from IDP movements after 2006, but it is certainly not thought that on top of these there is need to feed also the previously recorded 107,000 Old IDPs, since in any case it is asserted that these have also moved. There are no IDPs recorded as being under LTTE control in Mannar, and it has been in any case specified that all those who were in areas under LTTE control there previously moved with the LTTE when it retreated, and would therefore be included in the Kilinochchi figures. Again, figures for October omit mention of Vavuniya North, for which at the end of August it was noted that there were 5,000 IDPs in LTTE controlled territory.
If these 5,000 are assumed to have moved with the LTTE, and if the 7,000 in the small area in Jaffna still under LTTE control are included, the number to whom Government provides food in LTTE controlled areas comes to 280,000.
Can the population still under LTTE control be much more than this? It is quite unlikely, given that the last reasonable extrapolations, at the time of the 2001 Census, referred to about 120,000 each in the two Districts of Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu. Of course others could have gone in, most notably the cadres withdrawn from the East, but in general there has been more movement the other way.
The conclusion therefore is inescapable that, give or take a few thousand, the government is actually supplying free food – in addition to free health and education – to practically the entire population of the areas still under LTTE control. Of course this is not at the most desirable levels (though health facilities still continue excellent in comparison with most countries at our economic level, and even education continues better than in most countries despite the disruption to schools and the reduction of teaching staff due to conscription by the LTTE as noted above). However, given that the Government also ensures the provision of food for commercial needs, food that continues to be bought, it would seem that the free food the Government supplies has been used throughout this period to feed LTTE cadres to their entire satisfaction. We however have to be thankful that, given the plenitude of the stocks being supplied, the poor IDPs also receive at least a modicum. It is however essential now, both to clarify the proportion in terms of all needs of the free services provided to the entire population, and to try to limit abuse of this by the LTTE, to check carefully on actual IDP figures and issue consolidated statistics.
Shelter and other needs
Finally, we need also to deal with general conditions. This too has been part of the plethora of allegations made against the Sri Lankan Government, by those who play on the suffering of IDPs and refugees in other countries which do not have a social support system of the sort Sri Lanka has developed over the years, to suggest that the situation in Sri Lanka is the same. The free health and education services Sri Lanka provides are not common elsewhere, which is what doubtless led international commentators to assert that these services were collapsing with the departure of aid organizations such as Save the Children and Medecins sans Frontieres. Naïve foreigners, pressed into providing financial support for such organizations, would not have wanted to hear that MSF had sent in just one doctor in 2008, for three months, and that apart from a midwife, whose contract ended anyway in September, its staff had been largely support personnel, such as drivers and security guards and cleaners and cooks.
This does not mean that the work MSF has done is not appreciated. Especially now that the LTTE has begun to target even doctors, we hope some brave foreign medical personnel will continue to serve our people. And it should be noted that it was not MSF that made ridiculous claims, but politicians with a particular agenda far removed from the devotion and courage that genuine aid workers manifest. Meanwhile Save the Children in Sri Lanka, which has of course been much more active, made handsomely clear its recognition that all it did was supplement the continuing work of the Sri Lankan government.
With regard to other needs, it should be stressed that, with regard to the latest figures supplied by the Ministry of Nation Building and UNHCR, it is agreed that only 19,000 IDPs are in Welfare Centres. The rest are with friends and relatives. This does not mean that they are all in houses, but it does mean that they are not totally without shelter in a storm.
Shelter continues to be supplied, primarily by the Government, though with assistance from the ICRC and the UN and other donors. Most foreigners however, hyped up by negative reporting, would not understand that the first point of relief is the Government, as is clear from the constant requests for assistance sent by the GAs to the main focal points, led by the Ministry of Resettlement and Disaster Relief Services, supplemented by the Disaster Management Centre and others. Most recently for instance, following the heavy rains, the Mullaitivu GA sent a report requesting assistance which noted that the estimates for the damage causes to houses would be sent soon. Funds for repairs are sent up as a matter of course, along with emergency assistance.
The ICRC continues with its work, which included facilitating the transit of ambulances. That the ambulance service, which brought down 535 people in October, is provided by the Government is forgotten, as is the fact that health care is provided for these by Government hospitals in cleared areas. These services will continue despite the LTTE attempt to transport explosives in an ambulance. It should also be noted that, according to the ICRC, 10,000 civilians used the crossing point at Omanthai, and over 1,400 vehicles.
In short, despite the massive hype about other inputs, the real heroes with regard to the services provided to the suffering people of the Vanni are the Sri Lankan officials who go about their duties without any pomp and ceremony. The continuing efforts of the Commissioner General of Essential Services and his staff, and of the Ministry of Health, as well as that of Education, should be registered, along with that of the Government officials working in those areas. They will have much more to do when the North too is liberated, but their enduring commitment now deserves many more plaudits than the world at large is willing to supply.
Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process
|Last Updated ( Thursday, 23 July 2009 )|
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