Readying for the refugees

Whatever the debate on the numbers maybe, there’s no gainsaying that several thousand refugees are now trapped in the small sliver of territory the LTTE still controls in the Vanni. The figures vary depending on who presents them. Sir. John Holmes, the UNUnder Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, who was here a few days ago at the invitation of the government, in a briefing to the UN Security Council on Friday said that estimates on the number of civilians trapped in what he called a ``rapidly shrinking pocket of land’’ varied from the government’s 70,000 to the UN’s 200,000. LTTE propaganda, of course, has numbers as high as 300,000 or more. Whatever the actual numbers are, the country has to be prepared to meet a surge of refugees, unfortunates many times displaced as the fighting raged around them, as best as we can. These are Sri Lankan citizen, traumatized by many years of war and the tyranny of LTTE terrorism who risked being shot dead – as many actually were - as they fled to safety. Those of us living in areas outside the war zone owe these people the best we can do for them.

We carry in our front page today an AFP report from Geneva quoting the UN’s refugee agency saying it was preparing to receive tens of thousands of displaced people fleeing the conflict zone. UNHCR has said that it had received 300 acres of land from the government to set up a camp for 42,000 people. But it warned that double that capacity will be needed and has asked for another 300 acres to be ready to handle 85,000 refugees. That then is the extent of the problem. Currently the Menik Farm at Vavuniya, a facility Holmes visited, where several thousand internally displace people (IDPs) have been accommodated in recent weeks when the fighting escalated, is the biggest of these. There are a few other transit camps in schools and various buildings where temporary shelters and other facilities have been set up. Various UN agencies, the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) and some NGOs have thrown their weight behind this effort. Although foreign agencies and foreign-funded NGOs have been subject to much domestic criticism by those who judged them as partial to the LTTE, we must not forget that at times of disaster – and this is one of them – like the tsunami in 2004, a great deal of useful service was performed by them. We would be foolish if we do not make good use of such goodwill this time around too.

While the government will not – and indeed cannot - stop the war because of the human shield the Tigers have thrown around themselves, it is evident that the wider world outside our shores is now acknowledging the facts of the case. We say that the government cannot stop the war because it is now very close to the finish in the sense that the writ of the Government of Sri Lanka will, hopefully by April or earlier, lie throughout the 25,000 square miles of this island after almost 30 years and the Tigers cannot be given the lifeline they so desperately seek. Holmes told the Security Council that there were ``credible reports’’ of the LTTE, which has long claimed to be the sole representatives of the Tamil people, shooting some of those trying to flee their terror. He also said that ``there is strong evidence’’ that the LTTE is trying to prevent civilians from leaving. No fertile imagination is required to figure out what methods are being used in the furtherance of that objective.

It would be foolish to pretend that civilians are not dying as the fighting continues although the forces have minimized the use of heavy weapons out of consideration for civilian lives. It would be equally stupid to claim that no LTTE cadres are leaving with the civilians fleeing the Vanni. Many of those coming into government-controlled areas would have surely been conscripted to work for the LTTE, either willingly or otherwise, to build the bund-and-ditch fortifications and other defenses. Some may have fought for the Tigers because they had no option. While concerns have been expressed about screening procedures that are being undertaken to prevent terrorist infiltration along with refugees, it is clear that the security authorities are concerned mainly about the hard core and the leadership and low-level participants in the war on the wrong side of the trenches have nothing to fear. However, not only the concerned authorities but also the whole country must bear in mind that when the Ceasefire Agreement was signed and unarmed LTTE cadres permitted to do ``political work’’ in government controlled areas, the Tigers were able to successfully convert the then cleared Eastern Province into a brand new recruiting ground.

We have no doubt that the government would willingly do the best it can to care for the refugees. Hopefully, more land will be made available either at Vavuniya or elsewhere to set up the additional facilities needed. In fact Holmes told the Security Council that since his visit an extra 250 acres have been cleared for temporary sites for 25,000 people and the allocation of another 400 acres ``very soon’’ was expected. There are clear indications that UN and other international agencies, understanding the plight of the refugees, are willing to put up more money for the care of these unfortunates. Nevertheless, the IDPs are primarily the responsibility of Sri Lanka and all its people who must pick up a fair share of the tab for looking after them until they can return to their own homes. It must be stressed in this context that they cannot be made to live for decades in refugee camps as many Muslims, ethnically ``cleansed’’ from Jaffna where they had lived for generations, have been compelled to do.

But the most important question is whether the Tigers can be pushed to release the civilians still in their clutches. While responsible world opinion has unequivocally called for this, there has been a deafening silence on this score particularly from the Tamil Diaspora whose money, donated and extorted, had long been the major source of sustenance of the LTTE. Although there are strident noises emanating from various places to stop the war and start negotiating, this is not where the world’s important centers of influence are going to push the Sri Lanka government. As reported in our front page today, the Sri Lanka situation is not on the agenda of the UN Security Council. President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s strong resolve to militarily defeat the Tigers, albeit at a huge cost both in human and economic terms, must be credited for this respite. Let us all then hope for a quick end to the fighting and contribute to the care of its victims who must be enabled to return to their own homes as quickly as possible.

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