Sri Lanka’s government ‘not trusted’ over internment camp detainees

June 15, 2009 at 1:18 pm Leave a comment

srilanka

Hundreds of thousands of people are trapped in internment camps despite the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka, an MP has told the Commons.

Siobhain McDonagh, Labour MP for Mitcham and Morden, secured an adjournment debate on Friday.

Last month the Sri Lankan Government declared victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Ms McDonagh told MPs of the plight of hundreds of thousands of people trapped in internment camps and the need for reliable independent sources of information.

“The international community has a responsibility to take urgent humanitarian action, but the Sri Lankan Government have forfeited their position of trust,” she said.

In January 2008 the Government pulled out of the 2002 ceasefire.

“Even with the credit crunch enveloping the world, the Sri Lankan Government decided to invest an incredible share of the country’s economy in fighting a military campaign against ethnic Tamils,” she said.

“Last year, they voted to spend $1.9 billion of the country’s budget on the military.

“Coincidentally, they have since asked the international community, through the International Monetary Fund, for a loan.

“This is for a total of—believe it or not—$1.9 billion.

“Although it is claimed that this is to help Sri Lanka through the global economic crisis, it is hard to escape the conclusion that this money is actually to bankroll a massive military campaign against the country’s own people.

“The international community therefore has a responsibility to think long and hard before it agrees to such a loan.”

Ms McDonagh said it was “impossible to verify the shocking numbers of those affected by the conflict, owing to the lack of any independent evidence.”

“A quarter of a million people were in the so-called safe zone, facing daily bombardment,” she said.

“80,000 people have died in the conflict since it began and at least 7,000 Tamil civilians are thought to have died this year alone.

“Even in January 2008, the US Congressional Research Service estimated there were about 300,000 displaced people in Sri Lanka, including Sinhalese as well as Tamils.

“A further 250,000 Tamils are thought to be living in London, having left Sri Lanka for whatever reason. The impact of the conflict has been huge.”

Ms McDonagh said British Tamils are angry and the government must hear their voice.

“Many feel they have nothing more to lose,” she said.

“So far they have been entirely peaceful, but it is possible that some will have been radicalised by the brutality back home.

“However, of immediate short-term concern is the fact that as many as 300,000 people are currently in refugee camps—that is the reason I called for this debate,” she said.

“A kind of doublespeak exists when it comes to Sri Lanka.

“The camps are described by the Sri Lankan Government as welfare villages, but even the Library says that they are better described as internment camps.

“Last month, despite the desperate conditions in Sri Lanka, the last neutral organisation in the conflict zone, the International Red Cross, pulled out because the Sri Lankan Government had barred it from the camps.

“Some 300,000 civilians live in the camps, with huge numbers sick, malnourished or injured.

“But the Sri Lankan Government are still refusing to allow any independent monitors or agencies into the area.

“There must be unhindered access for independent international agencies like the Red Cross and the UNHCR to all the internment camps.”

Ms McDonagh said Britain “has done more than almost any other country to resolve the conflict” and praisedForeign Secretary David Miliband’s “extraordinary resolve in his efforts to help Tamils caught up in the conflict.”

Responding for the government, Foreign and Commonwealth Office minister Ivan Lewis commended Ms McDonagh on securing the debate.

“Of course, we are relieved that the thousands of civilians who were trapped in the conflict zone are no longer at immediate risk from the fighting, but we must also be clear that this is no time for celebration,” he said.

“Too many Sri Lankans died during three decades of conflict. We may never know the final figure, but it is reasonable to assume that it was far more than the 70,000 that is frequently cited.

“The significant challenges that now face the country are threefold: to provide immediate relief for the thousands of displaced civilians; to ensure their rehabilitation and resettlement; and to initiate a process of political reconciliation that is genuinely and authentically inclusive.

“As my hon. Friend said, as soon as the fighting was over my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary spoke to the President and Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka and urged the Sri Lankan Government to launch a genuine political process and to address the needs of the internally displaced persons—the IDPs.

“I think that we would all be united in saying that the most pressing priority has to be tackling the humanitarian situation.

“Shockingly, there are now more than 280,000 civilians in the IDP camps.

“Any country would struggle to cope with that number, and that is why the presence of the UN and international humanitarian agencies is so important, but they can provide the much needed assistance only with the full co-operation of the Sri Lankan Government.”

Mr Lewis said the British government believes lasting peace can only come about “only as a result of an inclusive political process, in which all communities in Sri Lanka believe genuinely that they are accepted and valued members of society.”

He said that the Department, the Department for International Development has allocated £12.5 million to support the work of the international humanitarian agencies.

“DFID’s contributions will continue to focus on the immediate needs of the IDPs, but they will also help to support displaced people in making a dignified and safe return to their homes,” he said.

“For Sri Lanka to move forward, all communities—Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims—must feel that they have an equal stake in that society.

“We will continue to use our influence and continue to work with the Sri Lankan Government and other partners to help bring this about, so that we can move from conflict and war to an authentic process of peace and reconciliation.”

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