Government Detention Camps for Displaced Persons

by Human Rights Watch, December 23, 2008

Since March 2008, Sri Lankan security forces have detained almost all ethnic Tamil civilians fleeing the Vanni, intercepting them when they approach government-controlled areas…

Despite repeated assurances from Sri Lankan authorities since April 2008 that many of the displaced persons detained in the two camps, particularly those originally from Trincomalee and Vavuniya districts, would be permitted to leave, as of December 15, 2008, only 65 persons had been released…

The civilians in the two camps are being held against their will. The camps are completely fenced, and are closely guarded by Sri Lankan navy and army personnel, and the police. The security forces have refused to allow the civilians to leave the camps-except under tight restrictions described below

Entire report here.

III. Government Dentention Camps for Displaced Persons

Kalimoddai and Sirunkandal detention camps

In the past year, despite the massive forced displacement of civilians in the Vanni, only about a thousand people have crossed LTTE lines into so-called “cleared areas” under government control. Civilians in the Vanni who manage to elude LTTE forced recruitment and labor, and other restrictions on their movement,[16] and reach government areas find they face great risks to their life and liberty. These include the danger of extrajudicial killing and enforced disappeance by government security forces and allied paramilitary groups, and long-term detention in poor conditions in government camps.

Since March 2008, Sri Lankan security forces have detained almost all ethnic Tamil civilians fleeing the Vanni, intercepting them when they approach government-controlled areas. Active fighting around the main A9 road and numerous government and LTTE checkpoints, and the widespread use of landmines by both sides have made travel overland extremely difficult and dangerous. As a result, until the mid-November 2008 LTTE withdrawal from northern Vavuniya district, most civilians fleeing the Vanni did so by sea, bribing local fishermen to take them by boat to the port town of Trincomalee or other government-controlled areas. Small numbers of civilians fleeing the Vanni still attempt to bypass the government security cordon to live in the predominantly Tamil areas of Mannar or Vavuniya, but they face arrest if identified. Following the mid-November 2008 withdrawal of the LTTE from northern Vavuniya district, several hundred civilians who approached the official government checkpoint at Omanthai just north of Vavuniya town were promptly detained and placed into camps (see below).

Tamil civilians seeking to flee fighting in Sri Lanka’s north during the 25-year-long civil war have long been subject to arbitrary detention in camps and other restrictions on their freedom of movement.[17] Still, most could hope to stay with relatives or host families in other parts of Sri Lanka. The government’s March 2008 decision to establish new camps seems intended to eliminate that possibility entirely.[18] Since then, all Tamils-including whole families-fleeing the Vanni have been detained on the apparent assumption that they are a security threat. No attempt is made by Sri Lankan security forces to distinguish between persons with suspected LTTE links and ordinary civilians. The only exceptions appear to be for some local humanitarian workers and clergy, who have been able to enter and exit the Vanni.

The security forces send Tamils taken into custody to two so-called “welfare centers” in Mannar district (additional camps in neighboring Vavuniya district, as discussed below, have also been established). Kalimoddai camp opened in March 2008; Sirukandal camp opened in July 2008. As of December 15 , 2008, Kalimoddai housed 461 persons (202families)[19] and Sirukandal housed 345 persons (153 families).[20] There were 226 children (persons under 18) in both camps.[21] Many of those detained are young single men who fled the Vanni to avoid forced LTTE recruitment, and families who fled to prevent the forced recruitment of their children.[22]

Since the establishment of the internment policy in March 2008, Sri Lankan authorities have also detained Sri Lankan Tamil refugees who have sought to return from India via sea, and placed them in the Kalimoddai and Sirukandal camps.[23]

Despite repeated assurances from Sri Lankan authorities since April 2008 that many of the displaced persons detained in the two camps, particularly those originally from Trincomalee and Vavuniya districts, would be permitted to leave, as of December 15, 2008, only 65 persons had been released.[24] On October 23, two persons from Kilinochchi district detained in Kalimoddai were allowed to move out of the camp to a host family in Vavuniya; on October 24, 25 persons, including three families who had been detained after returning from India, were released from Kalimoddai and Sirunkandal camps and returned to their home area of Trincomalee.[25]

The civilians in the two camps are being held against their will. The camps are completely fenced, and are closely guarded by Sri Lankan navy and army personnel, and the police. The security forces have refused to allow the civilians to leave the camps-except under tight restrictions described below-and integrate into local communities or live with host families.

In echoes of LTTE population controls, individuals wishing to leave the camp for work or other reasons must request a daily pass from the security forces and leave behind another relative as “guarantor” to ensure their return.[26] The security forces limit the total number of day passes given out each day and those who receive a pass must return by evening. There are also restrictions on where detainees can go. Previously they could only go to nearby Murunkan, but in November, some camp residents-but not young single detainees-were allowed to travel to Mannar town.

Camp residents who are not with families cannot provide relatives as “guarantors” and are thus almost permanently confined to the camp. In order for single men to leave the camp, they must request special permission for a critical situation such as a medical emergency. Ordinary daily needs such as shopping, visiting relatives and friends, or collecting firewood do not usually qualify. On one recent occasion, a group of single camp residents were escorted to go shopping, but such cases are the exception. Only when enough such special individual requests have been made by single detainees is a group allowed to leave the camp. These restrictions have at times put the lives of detained displaced persons in danger: in September, a detained displaced person with a heart condition had to wait three days before being allowed to leave the camp for medical attention.[27]

Available information indicates that the restrictions on movement for displaced persons in the camps are increasingly becoming stricter, particularly for single men. After security incidents such as escape or suicide attempts, the security forces have prohibited young men from leaving the camp altogether for extended periods. After a young man went missing from Kalimoddai in October-it remains unclear whether he escaped or was abducted-virtually no single detainees were allowed to leave the camp under any circumstances, a restriction still in place at the time of finalization of this report on December 15, 2008.[28] The Sri Lankan security forces claim that 13 camp residents have “escaped,” but detainees told humanitarian workers the men may have been abducted or “disappeared.”[29]

At least five camp residents, all young men, have been arrested from the camps and taken into police custody. Nothing is known about what happened to them thereafter, creating fear among other camp residents, particularly young men.

Conditions in the camps are dire and need urgent attention. Most of the detainees live in temporary emergency tents, and Kalimodai camp is built in a low-lying area prone to flooding in the monsoon season. There are significant concerns about privacy and hygiene in the camps, particularly at Kalimoddai, where there is insufficient space and facilities to house so many families. A request to move the camp residents to a more appropriate location was submitted by the Government Agent of Mannar, but was declined by the Sri Lankan navy on security grounds.[30]

No schools operate in the camps. Children allowed to attend the nearby schools in Murunkan and Parikarikandal are only offered a limited curriculum. On November 2, a number of students were released from Sirukandal to attend schools in Mannar, but their parents were required to remain in the camp. At least four children-down from at least 20 children earlier-in Kalimoddai and Sirunkandal are currently not attending school at all because of the difficulties they face in accessing educational opportunities.[31]

Detainees in the two camps have very limited ability to pursue livelihoods. Most are farmers and fishermen but have no opportunity to engage in work, making them dependent on the assistance provided.

Humanitarian agencies operating in the camp need prior authorization to visit the camps, and are often questioned about the purpose of their visits. Despite the dire needs of the detainees at the two camps, many humanitarian agencies face a difficult dilemma. The military nature of the camps and the restrictions on freedom of movement imposed by the government are inconsistent with international law and basic principles on the treatment of displaced persons. Many agencies feel that providing humanitarian assistance to displaced persons under such circumstances would legitimize unacceptable government detention policies. As a result, humanitarian agencies took a joint decision to limit their assistance to relief assistance, providing emergency water and sanitation facilities, but no infrastructure support that could make these camps permanent.[32] Instead, the agencies decided to focus on advocating for changes in the way the camps are run, particularly allowing freedom of movement for the displaced persons.

The decision by humanitarian agencies to limit their involvement with the detention camps was also motivated by the wishes of the camp residents themselves, who articulated a clear position during a series of consultations. The detainees said they did not want the humanitarian community to provide any kind of assistance that would result in more than a temporary stay in the camps. They did not want their detention legitimized or made more permanent by the building of longer-term camp structures.[33]

The detainees wish to leave the camps as soon as possible. On May 10 and 11, local authorities conducted a survey in Kalimoddai camp (then the only camp for displaced persons from the Vanni). Out of the then camp population of 257 individuals (115 families), only five families indicated they were undecided about remaining in Kalimoddai. The other families indicated they wanted to leave the camp and had alternative places to stay, including with relatives and nearby host families, a much healthier and secure environment for displaced families.[34]Though these findings were presented to the Government Agent of Mannar at the Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Activity (CCHA) meeting held on May 15, no action was taken.

International law on detaining displaced persons

International human rights law and international humanitarian law during internal armed conflicts prohibit arbitrary detention.[35] The UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, an authoritative framework for the protection of displaced persons derived  from international law, provides that, consistent with the right to liberty, internally displaced persons (IDPs) “shall not be interned in or confined to a camp.” The principles recognize that “exceptional circumstances” may permit confinement only for so long as it is “absolutely necessary,” but the Sri Lankan government has not demonstrated that such circumstances exist.[36]

In his May 21, 2008, report to the UN Human Rights Council on his December 2007 visit to Sri Lanka, Walter Kälin, the UN secretary-general’s representative on IDPs, emphasized that displaced persons in Sri Lanka, “as citizens of their country,” remained “entitled to all guarantees of international human rights and international humanitarian law subscribed by the State.”[37] His report noted that, “while the need to address security may be a component of the plan [to receive IDPs], it should be humanitarian and civilian in nature. In particular, IDPs’ freedom of movement must be respected, and IDPs may not be confined to a camp” (emphasis added).[38] The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has similarly reaffirmed the rights of IDPs in an Aide Memoire to the Sri Lankan government dated August 19, 2008 (discussed below).

The Sri Lankan security forces have a legitimate right to identify and apprehend suspected LTTE militants found with civilians fleeing the Vanni. Suspected LTTE militants must be treated in accordance with international standards, and not abused, “disappeared,” or executed-a continuing problem in Sri Lanka. However, the current blanket detention policy of the Sri Lankan government, placing anyone fleeing the Vanni into camps, violates Sri Lanka’s obligations under international humanitarian law and human rights law.

Proposed expansion of the detention policy

The problems faced by the approximately 800 persons displaced from the Vanni who are currently interned in the Kalimoddai and Sirunkandal camps are not unique in Sri Lanka. Although the vast majority of the more than 20,000 persons displaced during the 2007 government military offensive in Mannar district were allowed to stay with host families or in IDP camps without strict movement controls, the Sri Lankan security forces continue to hold an estimated 400 displaced persons from the Musali area under similar movement restrictions in the Nanattan Rice Mill and Church Land “welfare” sites, denying them freedom of movement.[39] A planned return of Musali displaced persons to their areas of origin was suspended in early October 2008 because of concerns about the presence of uncleared mines and ordinance.[40]

In September 2008, the Sri Lankan authorities informed the UN and humanitarian organizations that they were in the process of drawing up contingency plans to keep up to 200,000 displaced people from the Vanni in new camps in Vavuniya district, in case a mass outflux from the Vanni materialized.[41] The government has identified both transit sites and permanent welfare sites that it would like to use to house the displaced persons from the Vanni around Vavuniya. Although the identification and preparation of sites is still in process, the sites include several active schools,[42] public halls,[43] and three large tracts of land in Mannik Farm, Karuvalpuliyankulam, and Kalwadinakulam that are in the process of being cleared and turned into large “welfare centers.”[44] Despite repeated requests from humanitarian agencies, government officials have refused to clarify if the same restrictive internment policies adopted in the Mannar-area camps would be extended to the new Vavuniya camps.

Whether the Sri Lankan authorities, the UN, and humanitarian organizations will be able to meet the shelter, water and sanitation, food, education, medical, and other needs of the displaced population in the new camps is an open question, particularly in light of the humanitarian community’s decision to limit their involvement in the Kalimoddai and Sirunkandal camps. Addressing these concerns depends in large measure on whether the Sri Lankan authorities will adopt the same unlawful restrictions on freedom of movement for the planned Vavuniya camps, turning them into large-scale internment camps rather than IDP camps that are in accordance with international standards.

According to humanitarians who have attended government meetings on the issue, the current government plan is to receive displaced persons fleeing the Vanni at the Omanthai military checkpoint, where all displaced persons will be screened.[45] The government agreed to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and UNHCR to monitor the screening process.[46] Those suspected of LTTE involvement will be taken into custody, but the remaining displaced persons will not be allowed freedom of movement; they will be first sent to military-guarded transit camps for a period of around five days, and will then be transferred to the permanent “welfare centers,” where they will remain for an unknown period of time under close military guard. Sri Lankan organizations have already expressed concern that the displaced persons will be indefinitely detained, like those at the Kallimodai and Sirunkandal camps.[47]

In response to the government plan to create further camps for displaced persons around Vavuniya, as well as in response to significant protection problems in other IDP sites and with resettlement programs in the east and north, UNHCR wrote an Aide Memoire to the Sri Lankan authorities on August 29, 2008, stating that it wished “to take this opportunity to reiterate that it can only support IDP sites, in which the physical safety and security, protection and well-being of the IDPs is ensured.” The Aide Memoire states that the Sri Lankan government “should ensure that IDPs enjoy full and unhindered freedom of movement within, as well as in and out of IDP sites,” and reaffirmed that the “preferred option for emergency shelter is the host family arrangement,” rather than restrictive camp options.[48]

The LTTE also bears responsibility for the plight of civilians fleeing from the Vanni. The LTTE has frequently used civilian cover to move LTTE combatants into government-controlled areas, either to avoid capture or to carry out attacks, including targeted killings and suicide bombing attacks. For example, Human Rights Watch documented a case in which the LTTE allowed a family to leave the Vanni on condition that they take an LTTE cadre along as a “family member” to escape scrutiny by the security forces.[49] In the case of a mass civilian outflux from the Vanni, there is little doubt among humanitarian officials and Sri Lanka experts that the LTTE would attempt to disguise a large number of LTTE combatants among civilians in order to move them out of the Vanni.

As noted above, the Sri Lankan authorities have an obligation to ensure the security of the civilian population, including by taking into custody suspected LTTE combatants and prosecuting them for cognizable criminal offenses in accordance with international legal standards. Arrivals of large numbers of displaced persons heighten such security concerns, but in no way lessens the obligation to abide by international law.

The LTTE also has international legal obligations towards civilians. Placing LTTE combatants within groups of fleeing civilians at a minimum violates the international humanitarian law requirement to take constant care to spare the civilian population, including by taking all feasible precautions to minimize loss of civilian life and protect civilians under their control from the effects of attacks.[50] Depending on the circumstances, such practices may amount to using civilians as “human shields” (deliberately using civilians to protect a military target from attack)[51] or acts of perfidy (deliberately feigning civilian status in order to carry out attacks), which are war crimes.[52]

Detention of recent arrivals in Vavuniya and Jaffna

The question of how the Sri Lankan authorities will handle new arrivals from the Vanni is no longer just one of future planning; since late November, an increased number of displaced persons from the Vanni have fled directly towards Vavuniya and Jaffna districts. The restrictive policies currently being implemented by the Sri Lankan authorities with these new arrivals confirm that the Sri Lankan government is indeed expanding its internment policy towards displaced persons coming from the Vanni.

Since November 21, a growing number of displaced persons have been detained by Sri Lankan security forces at the Omanthai checkpoint-at least 419 individuals (174 families) by December 15,[53] almost all of them from northern Vavuniya district.[54] This is due to a combination of factors. The LTTE withdrew from some formerly LTTE-controlled areas of northern Vavuniya, including its own checkpoint at Omanthai on the A9,[55] allowing greater numbers of displaced persons to reach the government checkpoint. Secondly, instead of letting civilians through the checkpoint, the Sri Lankan security services since mid-November have closed it completely, and detained civilians who arrive there.[56]

So far, the government has not complied with the most important agreements made with humanitarian agencies on the procedures to be followed should there be an influx of displaced persons towards Vavuniya. The government has not allowed the ICRC and UNHCR to observe the procedures used to screen out suspected LTTE militants at the Omanthai checkpoint, as had been previously requested (see above). Given the Sri Lankan security forces’ disturbing record of “disappearances,” the inability of the ICRC and UNHCR to monitor these screening procedures is a cause for grave concern. The government also did not implement an agreed-upon registration of the newly arrived displaced persons by civilian authorities that would have helped ensure all displaced persons remain accounted for. The transit sites used by the military were not those agreed upon and assessed by the humanitarian community, and do not have adequate water and sanitation facilities.[57]

The displaced persons screened and detained at the Omanthai checkpoint have all been taken to the Manik Farm area, where some areas of land have been cleared by the authorities, and to Nellukulam. The families are currently staying at a school building and a community hall, where they have been kept under close guard by a heavy military presence. As at Kalimoddai and Sirukandal camps in Mannar, the displaced persons have not been allowed to leave the camps, and some agencies, including the Sri Lankan National Human Rights Commission, have had difficulty accessing the camp.[58] The military commander at Manik Farm has required that all organizations visiting the camp, including UN agencies, the National Human Rights Commission, and all NGOs, have prior written permission from the Vavuniya Government Agent. The Government Agent has indicated to the BBC that the army told her not to allow anyone to visit the camp.[59]

By December 15, at least 155 individuals from the Vanni had attempted to flee by small boats towards the northern Jaffna district, and were intercepted by the navy at sea.[60] Since their arrival, the families have been kept under military guard at the former court complex in Jaffna, with only the ICRC and UNHCR allowed access to them. On November 2, a group of 28 displaced persons fleeing the Vanni were intercepted at sea by the navy and moved to Jaffna town. There they were brought before the Jaffna magistrate, and then sent to Jaffna prison. No legal justification was given for detaining them at the prison, which houses convicted criminals and is notoriously overcrowded and filthy, and so is not an appropriate facility to house displaced persons.[61]

After interventions from lawyers for the displaced persons, they were transferred from the prison on November 25 to the former court complex, where the other displaced from Vanni were already being kept.[62] In early December, the displaced persons were moved from the courthouse premises to the Kopay Teachers’ Training Complex, where they are still kept under military guard and not allowed to leave the complex.[63]

A Note on Displacement and Other Figures Used in this Report

Because of restrictions on access placed on humanitarian agencies operating in the Vanni, there is no accurate figure available for the current number of displaced persons there. Estimates made by various government agencies and humanitarian agencies vary widely. Government Agents in the Vanni estimate 350,000 displaced persons, while the United Nations estimates 230,000-300,000. Some government officials suggest there are as few as 100,000. Because the government appears keen to downplay the severity of the humanitarian crisis in the Vanni, the number of displaced persons has become a point of contention. All other figures used in this report have been updated at the time of writing unless stated otherwise.

At a meeting for humanitarian agencies convened by the Government Agent of Vavuniya on November 4, 2008, the Government Agents for Mullaittivu and Kilinochchi stated that they had counted a total of 197,103 displaced persons in Mullaittivu (96,135 persons displaced since August 11, 2006, and 100,968 persons displaced before that date), and 151,000 displaced persons in Kilinochchi (148,109 since August 11, 2006, the remainder before that date), for a total of 348,103 displaced persons. However, the figures of the Government Agents do not take into account that a significant number of the pre-2006 displaced persons have again been displaced by the conflict and are thus counted twice, which inflates the total number.

The most recent (November 2008) figures of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimate there are 230,000 displaced in the Vanni, a figure also accepted by the United Nations Resident Coordinator’s office. [64] This figure does not include the more than 100,000 registered displaced persons who were displaced prior to August 11, 2006 , and which are included in the counts of the Government Agents. However, the UN has been inconsistent in using the 230,000 figure; on a number of occasions, the UN has also estimated the number of displaced persons in the Vanni at around 300,000. [65] Most recently, the UN World Food Program used a lower figure of an “estimated” 200,000 displaced persons in the Vanni in a press statement, without any explanation why their estimates differed from those of the other UN agencies. [66] Officially, the World Food Program continues to use the figure of 238,000 displaced persons.

Estimates from national government officials typically have been lower than those of the humanitarian community and their own Government Agents in the Vanni, which appears to be aimed at downplaying the seriousness of the Vanni’s humanitarian crisis. In November 2008, the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights claimed that the actual number of persons displaced since April 2006 was 207,000 persons. [67] During a November 21 ceremony accepting Indian government aid for civilians in the Vanni, Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohana gave an even smaller number, arguing that the figures of displaced persons in the Vanni were “grossly exaggerated,” and stating that he believed there were “around 100,000” displaced persons in the Vanni. [68] It is not clear why the foreign secretary gave a figure only half that estimated by the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, but the humanitarian plight of the Vanni displaced population has greatly concerned neighboring India, with a large Tamil population in Tamil Nadu state; lowering the figures of affected persons may be an attempt to limit Indian pressure. [69]

Government officials have frequently responded to human rights concerns by arguing over the numbers used rather than about the practices described, which obfuscates the concerns raised. In any complex humanitarian situation, figures of displacement and humanitarian assistance change constantly, as displaced persons move or more humanitarian assistance is brought in. The purpose of this report is to identify patterns of government and LTTE abuses that should be cause for concern, such as restrictions on freedom of movement for displaced persons or interference with the work of humanitarian agencies. Those concerns remain the same whether 200,000, 300,000, or a different number of persons are affected.