Barbed wire villages raise fears of refugee concentration camps

Jeremy Page, South Asia Correspondent
February 13, 2009

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Sri Lanka was accused yesterday of planning concentration camps to hold 200,000 ethnic Tamil refugees from its northeastern conflict zone for up to three years — and seeking funding for the project from Britain.

The Sri Lankan Government says that it will open five “welfare villages” to house Tamils fleeing the 67 sq mile patch of jungle where the army has pinned down the Tamil Tiger rebels.

The ministry in charge says that the camps, in Vavuniya and Mannar districts, will have schools, banks, parks and vocational centres to help to rehabilitate up to 200,000 displaced Tamils after a 25-year civil war.

It also says that it will be compulsory for people fleeing the area to live in the camps until the army — which will guard them — has screened them, hunted down the Tigers and demined the area. The camps will be ringed with barbed wire fencing and, while those with relatives inside will be allowed to come and go after initial screening, young and/or single people will not be allowed to leave, it says.

It originally proposed holding them for up to three years, but after protests from the UN refugee agency now says that it hopes to resettle 80 per cent by the end of the year. “Of course, it will not be voluntary — we need to check everyone,” Rajiva Wijesinha, the Secretary of the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, told The Times. “This is a situation where we’re dealing with terrorists who infiltrate civilian populations. Security has to be paramount.” He said that it was the only way to prevent Tiger suicide attacks like the one that killed 20 soldiers and eight civilians on Tuesday.

Indian and Sri Lankan Tamil MPs expressed outrage and urged the international community not to fund the camps without direct oversight and independent media access. “These are nothing but concentration camps,” said Raman Senthil, an Indian Tamil MP. “Why should they be in camps? If they are citizens they should be rehabilitated straight away.”

Mano Ganeshan, a Sri Lankan Tamil MP, said: “I don’t want to say concentration camp yet, but they’re already detention camps and military grilling stations. They should be run and monitored by the international community.” Suren Surendiran, of the British Tamils Forum, said that the camps were “like the detention centres where the Jews were held in World War Two”.

Robert Evans, a Labour MEP who has visited Sri Lanka as chairman of the European Parliament Delegation on Relations with South Asia, said: “These are not welfare camps, they are prisoner-of-war cum concentration camps.” Human Rights Watch called the camps “detention centres” and said that they violated UN guidelines on internally displaced people, which say they can only be detained or interned under exceptional circumstances. “The Sri Lankan Government has not demonstrated that such circumstances exist,” said Charu Hogg, a Human Rights Watch spokeswoman.

Amnesty International said that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights obliged Sri Lanka to refrain from arbitrarily depriving any person’s right to liberty. “The Government wants international assistance but not international standards,” said Yolanda Foster, Amnesty’s Sri Lanka expert.

President Rajapaksa said last week that the army was within days of defeating the Tigers, and rejected international calls for a ceasefire. The Government says that 32,000 civilians have fled the conflict zone in the past week and are being processed at 13 temporary camps. Amnesty describes those as “de facto detention centres” and accuses the army of taking hostages by allowing people to leave only if a relative stays behind. The Government says that Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and international aid agencies are prejudiced towards the Tigers.

For that reason, Professor Wijesinha said, the Government would limit aid groups’ access to camps and allow journalists to visit only on government tours. He said that President Rajapaksa’s office drafted the original proposal two weeks ago and circulated it to foreign embassies and aid agencies to raise funding. “There’s talk that the British will provide a couple of million pounds,” he said.

Britain’s Department for International Development denied that, saying: “Prolonging the displacement of this vulnerable group of people is not in anyone’s interests. There is no UK government money going into the camps.”

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, said that the Government revised its proposal after concerns were raised over the three-year detention period. A new version was committed to resettling people as soon as possible, said Sulakshani Perera, a UNHCR spokeswoman. She said Basil Rajapaksa, the President’s brother, had said it would not be compulsory for anyone to enter the camps