Causes and consequences
Two decades of civil war
Few would have imagined in the early 1980s that the civil war between Tamil militants and the Sri Lankan state would be so protracted and intractable. The mid-1980s saw several militant groups engage the Sri Lankan armed forces and each other in sporadic battles throughout the north-east. In 1987 there was a pause in fighting with the arrival of an Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF) to attempt to broker a settlement. The presence of the IPKF was eventually resented by both Tamil militants and sections of the Sinhalese polity. Following the IPKF withdrawal in 1990, hostilities eventually resumed between a strengthened LTTE, which had emerged as the dominant Tamil group, and the Sri Lankan state. Major battles were fought in the early 1990s until the election, in 1994, of an SLFP-led coalition under Chandrika Kumaratunga on a manifesto of peace. Negotiations between delegates of the government and the LTTE broke down in early 1995, and hostilities resumed on an even larger scale. Late in 1995 the LTTE lost control of the city of Jaffna and its surrounds (an area that the LTTE had controlled during the early 1990s). The late 1990s saw most battles take place in the rural hinterland of the north-east known as the Vanni, though sporadic attacks on army establishments in Jaffna and bombings in Colombo did take place.
In late 2001, following the election this time of a UNP-led coalition on a platform of peace, negotiations began again. With facilitation provided by envoys of the Norwegian government, the LTTE and the government signed an indefinite ceasefire in February 2002. The agreement permitted the LTTE to retain control of large parts of the Vanni, and the establishment of border points to allow movement of people and goods between government- and LTTE-controlled areas (something that had been very difficult during the war). A neutral observer mission staffed by Scandinavian monitors was also set up. In late 2002, following a joint appeal to donors for funds to reconstruct the north-east, the two parties began direct peace talks. Several rounds of talks took place in international locations, and considerable progress was made on several fronts, especially with regard to economic development. However, citing the slow pace of progress in the delivery of a 'peace dividend' to the people of the north-east, the LTTE withdrew from talks in April 2003. In late 2003 the ceasefire agreement was put under further pressure when hostilities between the 'co-habiting' president and prime minister resulted in the Norwegians withdrawing their facilitation. Since the April 2004 elections, the newly elected coalition government has found it difficult to establish a consensus position from which to negotiate and, at the time of writing, direct negotiations are yet to resume, though Norwegian facilitation has resumed. These developments and the numerous unresolved issues have underpinned the fact that, despite the ceasefire continuing to hold, there is a long way to go before a permanent settlement can be arrived at.
- Draft Needs Assessment for north-east, UN Agencies, 2003- http://www.peaceinsrilanka.org/Downloads/Assessment of Needs (Draft).pdf
- Government Peace Secretariat - http://www.peaceinsrilanka.org/
- Key Actors from Accord (1998) - http://www.c-r.org/accord/sri/accord4/key_actors.shtml
- PowerPoint presentation on Sri Lanka's post-conflict needs, World Bank, 2003 - http://www.peaceinsrilanka.org/Downloads/April 14 Presentation (no pictures) PH.ppt
- Timeline and documents relating to post-ceasefire developments, Refugee Council (UK) - http://www.refugeecouncil.org.uk/downloads/publications/sri_lanka_timeline.pdf
The duration and intensity of war in Sri Lanka has been a major cause of displacement. Given that almost all of the fighting has taken place in the north-east, it is not surprising that almost all of those who have been displaced have come from this region. Given the ethnic make-up of the region, it is also not surprising that the displaced have been predominantly Tamil.
While the exact impact of the war on the north-east is impossible to estimate, it is clear that the conflict has taken an immense toll. At least 60,000 people are estimated to have died as a direct result of the war, with almost all of those deaths taking place in the north-east (noting that some would have been armed forces serving in the region). Extensive fighting, including conventional combat involving large battalions and heavy munitions, has destroyed much of the region's physical infrastructure. Key economic infrastructure such as irrigation systems have also been destroyed or neglected, and critical markets for goods and services have been absent or severely disrupted. There have been low levels of investment (public and private) in war-affected areas, severe disruption to education, and considerable damage to ecosystems. Thus, in the Sri Lankan case, the destruction caused by the conflict meant that those fleeing from war were also often fleeing from severe disruption of their livelihoods.
There is also evidence to suggest that forced migration from the north-east was self-reinforcing. As many fled their erstwhile homes, those who remained were left with reduced economic and social opportunities. Often there was not enough critical mass to keep local economies alive, forcing even more people to leave. With fewer opportunities for stable incomes and less incentive to invest productively, the economic breakdown in the north-east leaves many with one of two options: fight or flight. In either case there is little to lose. This is supported by evidence ( Hasbullah, 1999 ), that suggests that those fleeing from shelling and search operations of the state armed forces were roughly equal to those fleeing shortage of food and other essential items. Further, initial streams of migrants from the north-east overseas created opportunities for further migration, through official and unofficial channels. In the case of Tamil households, the prevalence of collective family finance systems meant that pooling money and resources to support the out-migration of some family members, usually young men, was common.
Displacement in the north-east was often associated with major events. For example, the UNHCR (2000) estimates that some 130,000 Tamils fled to India soon after the anti-Tamil riots of 1983. On other occasions, displacement was caused by pre-emptive flight, especially following warnings from one side or another of an imminent attack. For example, several hundred thousand people are estimated to have fled the Jaffna area ahead of its capture by the armed forces in 1995, resulting in what is considered to be the peak period of displacement in Sri Lanka ( Gomez 2002 ). Similarly, an estimated 170,000 people fled before the key battle around Elephant Pass in 2000 ( Global IDP Project ).
Multiple displacement as a result of fighting has also been commonplace. In some cases families have been compelled to move several times. A survey of 281 families in 2000 by UNHCR (2000) shows that 21.7 per cent had been displaced five times or more, while a further 30.7 per cent have been displaced three times. Some of those who have been displaced several times within the north-east may eventually have been displaced to Colombo or even overseas.
It is clear that conflict-induced internal displacement in Sri Lanka has occurred on a massive scale. Official estimates show that the number of IDPs peaked at over one million people in late 1995, nearly half of the north-east region's population. By early 2002, just before the signing of the ceasefire, there were estimated to be some 683,286 IDPs, including 174,250 people at the 346 welfare centres around the island ( Gomez 2002 ). More recently, there is evidence to suggest that more than four-fifths of the current population of the LTTE-controlled area has been displaced ( CPA 2003 ). However, it is clear that official figures do not cover the sizeable population of former north-east residents who have not formally registered as IDPs and now live in and around Colombo.
IDPs in Sri Lanka can be classified according to a number of measures. Most importantly, some IDPs have spent all or some of their displacement in camps or welfare centres set up by the government or non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Others chose not to enter these camps or centres, and fended for themselves within the north-east, in the border areas surrounding the north-east or in other parts of the island, particularly Colombo. Some IDPs are returnees from other countries, usually from India (via transit camps set up to receive them) or occasionally repatriated asylum seekers from the West.
In a situation somewhat different from the bulk of Sri Lanka's IDPs, there are approximately 100,000 Muslims who were evicted from homes in Jaffna and Mannar by the LTTE in 1990. Most of this group settled in the districts in Puttalam, Anuradhapura, and Kurunegala, and many remain there even after the ceasefire. Their long-term residence and participation in local economic activities has led to major changes in the local socio-economic context. However, this group has yet to achieve political inclusion in their new homes and the resettlement of those amongst this group who are prepared to return will need particularly sensitive handling.
- Article on Muslim IDPs from Lines Magazine by Shahul Hasbullah (2002) - http://www.lines-magazine.org/Art_Nov02/Hasbulla.htm
- Data on past and current levels of IDPs at the Global IDP Project pages - http://www.db.idpproject.org/Sites/idpSurvey.nsf/wCountries/Sri+Lanka
- Report on impact of forced migration on local economies of the Northwest by N. Shanmugaratnam (2000) - http://www.nlh.no/noragric/publications/workingpapers/noragric-wp-22.pdf
Refugees and migrants
The events of 1983 and the civil war since then have had a huge impact on conflict-induced migration from Sri Lanka. These movements can be classed into three broad categories. First, most Tamils already abroad and reluctant to return had more reason (and justification) for staying away permanently. Across Europe and North America, thousands of Tamil students and guest workers lodged asylum claims. Second, the emigration flows of professional and middle-class Tamils gathered strength. Some of this group migrated for education and employment to the West, or to take up contracted appointments in countries as far afield as Nigeria, Papua New Guinea or Guyana (though many of these people ended up in the West). Third, the events of 1983 mark the start of the widespread conflict-related flows of Tamils seeking asylum overseas and later through family reunion programmes. It is this third group that has contributed the most numbers to the Tamil diaspora as well as attracted the most attention.
According to the UNHCR, some 256,307 people of Sri Lankan origin applied for asylum in Europe between 1980 and 1999, making Sri Lankans one of the top ten groups of claimants during this period ( UNHCR 2001b : Tables V.4 and V.13). The contribution of the three years prior to 1983 (3.8 per cent) was relatively small, while the periods 1984 to 1985 (16.6 per cent) and 1989 to 1992 (31.1 per cent) saw the biggest clusters of applications. Between 1990 and 1999, people of Sri Lankan origin (possibly including small numbers of non-Tamil Sri Lankans) were the single largest group applying for asylum in Canada (34,186 applications), with nearly half of those applications being lodged in the first three years of that period (ibid. Table V.21). Not all of these applications were successful but large numbers of applicants have been granted some of form of resident status in their host country. Over time, those who were permitted to stay sponsored family members and also started their own families, thus increasing the numbers of Tamils beyond the official asylum-seeker figures.
In June 2001, the UNHCR estimated the stock of internationally displaced Tamils to be 817,000, most of whom are/were refugees or asylum seekers ( UNHCR 2001 ). Canada topped the list, hosting an estimated 400,000 Tamils, followed by Europe (200,000), India (67,000), the United States (40,000), Australia (30,000), and another 80,000 living in a dozen other countries. Other estimates place the size of the diaspora around 700,000 (Fuglerud 1999).
Other causes of displacement
Sri Lanka's largest integrated development project, involving building numerous dams, generating hydroelectricity and irrigating large sections of the dry zone in the north-east, has been a cause of displacement, though not to the scale of conflict-induced displacement. From the 1960s, the development of the Mahaweli region has been controversial. Not only were some local residents displaced through the scheme, including small communities of Sri Lanka's indigenous forest-dwelling people, but the scheme also involved large-scale resettlement from the South (Sørensen 1996). While the resettlement was largely voluntary, the arrival of predominantly Sinhalese people into what was considered part of the Tamil homeland fuelled Tamil grievances.
There has been periodic disaster-induced displacement in Sri Lanka. Most recently, in May 2003, severe flooding in the south-west coastal regions resulted in more than 120 deaths and 150,000 families being displaced temporarily.
Though this does not fall under the category of forced migration, it is worth noting that Sri Lanka has one of world's highest rates of voluntary short-term labour migration. More than 500,000 workers are estimated to be working predominantly as labourers and domestic workers mostly in the Middle East. Almost all of these migrants are Sinhalese and most hail from poor, rural regions in the south. In many ways, this form of short-term migration is a reaction to the poor economic opportunities facing many Sri Lankans because of uneven development, partly as a result of the war. Some IDPs, particularly Muslims displaced in 1990, have also taken up the labour migration option.
- Flooding in south-west, map - http://www.reliefweb.int/w/map.nsf/wByCLatest/74C7A8E1CA17807285256D340053307C?Opendocument
- Mahaweli Development Scheme and displacement of indigenous tribes - http://vedda.org/6-mahaweli.htm
- Paper on the migration and development nexus - http://www.cdr.dk/migdevwall/papers/SriLankaCaseStudy.doc