Sri Lanka civil war refugees to be housed in ‘welfare villages’

Aid agencies voice concern about 200,000 Tamils being trapped in camps for years

Sri Lanka aims to house more than 200,000 civil war refugees in five “welfare villages” for more than three years, despite concerns from aid agencies about Tamils being trapped in them and unable to return home.

The villages, government officials told the Guardian, will have “basic but clean” facilities, including running water, food and shelter. There are also plans to put up post offices and banks in the villages that will be kept running while the army mops up the last remaining Tamil Tiger guerrillas.

“European diplomats who have visited [the villages] said they are not five star facilities but our concern is with the welfare and security of the people. If we let them out there could be conflicts with other locals,” said one official.

The proposals, shown to a number of international aid groups, emerged as tens of thousands of civilians have fled from the northern front where Tamil Tiger rebels and government forces have engaged in heavy fighting.

According to a draft plan, seen by the Associated Press, the government estimates that 40,000 to 50,000 internally displaced families will soon be forced out of the war zone. The welfare villages would be set up to house them for two to three years, the report said.

At present all refugees are being housed in 15 transit camps. The government had initially barred aid workers from the transit camps without explanation but relented after the scale of the rehabilitation effort increased. One option sees 40 “village” schools being built at a cost of $14m (£9m) – to be paid for by donors.

In December, Human Rights Watch criticised the government’s treatment of the fleeing civilians, saying it was arbitrarily detaining them in camps that were little better than prisons. Amnesty International had also pointed out that a number of welfare villages were already in operation and said these “severely restricted the ability of the displaced people … to move”.

The government dismissed such concerns. Rajiva Wijesinha, secretary at the ministry of disaster management and human rights, told reporters the camps would be run by the government but the military would have “great involvement”. “There is a very clear security threat and we are not going to play games with the lives of our people,” he said.

Despite being in what is expected to be its final phase, the fighting continues to be heavy and bloody. The Sri Lankan army said it had taken a major rebel fortified position – killing 28 Tamil fighters and capturing a cache of weapons and ammunition in the latest offensive, which saw seven separate battles rage. There is no independent confirmation as journalists have been barred from the war zone.

There is little doubt that civilians are being caught in the crossfire. The Red Cross evacuated 240 wounded civilians by ferry who had been trapped in a coastal school being used as a makeshift hospital.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have been fighting since 1983 for an independent state in the north and the east for minority Tamils who they say have been marginalised for decades by governments dominated by the Sinhalese majority.

In recent months, the military has swept the Tigers out of their 5,600-square-mile jungle lair in the north and cornered the remaining fighters into a 60-square-mile narrow coastal strip. Military officials have speculated that Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran may have slipped out of the country by boat as his fighters have been flushed out of the forests. 

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