The government says that the dangers are being exaggerated and that it has dug enough drainage ditches to cope with rising water levels in 90% of the camp. It has also accused the UN of failing to provide adequate accommodation and toilet facilities for those in the camps.
But the latest assessment of the humanitarian situation by the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) identifies three zones in Menik Farm as being at dire risk in the monsoon season. Gordon Weiss, the UN spokesman in Sri Lanka, said the threat had been obvious: “We have been saying for a while that we think there is going to be a serious problem when the monsoon rains come. There were rains a couple of months ago, which displaced thousands of people in the space of a couple of hours. The monsoon is going to be a much more punishing force.
“Unless people are moved from these areas, they are going to be in trouble from an inundation of water that will make it impossible to live. Up to 66,000 people will be flooded. The latrines will overflow, water supplies will be unusable and access by wheeled vehicles impossible. It will be pretty unbearable.”
Last week, Britain’s international development minister, Mike Foster, visited Menik Farm and warned of the threat of disease as a result of the monsoon. Announcing that UK funding would be withheld after the monsoon, he said he was unhappy with the continued detention of many in the camps and 70% should now be allowed to leave. “If we continue to fund day-to-day commitments of running those camps, there is no incentive for the government to encourage people to leave,” he added.
OCHA’s October 2009 humanitarian report notes that “key priorities for preparedness include moving people out of the most vulnerable zones, decommissioning toilets and bathing areas, as well as implementing mitigating measures, such as extensive drainage works and fencing around ditches”.
New York-based Human Rights Watch Asia director Brad Adams said yesterday: “If they aren’t out of there before the monsoons hit, their lives and health will be in serious danger.” The group called on donors such as Japan, the US and EU to press Sri Lanka to free the war displaced.
Weiss said the authorities had started to move some people out of the camps, but the UN had urged it to speed up the process. After the rout of the Tamil Tiger rebels in May, the government pledged that civilians who were interned in the camps after fleeing the fighting would be returned home within 180 days.
Estimates vary of the numbers of civilians picked up by the military as they fled the fighting, but the total is thought to be close to 300,000. The government argued that it needed to screen them to weed out former Tamil Tiger fighters and others with links to the group. About half are believed to have been screened.
According to the OCHA report, 253,567 people are interned in the main camps, with another 3,358 in transit camps and 1,984 in hospitals. More than 11,000 people suspected of links with the Tamil Tigers have been sent for “rehabilitation” at camps elsewhere in the country.
The report said that 6,813 people had returned to their homes and another 7,835 had been released from the camps. Last week, Mahinda Samarasinghe, Sri Lanka’s human rights and disaster management minister, said the latest figures were 10,593 and 22,668 respectively.
The government says it plans to release thousands more people in the coming weeks. But Rajiva Wijesinha, permanent secretary to Samarasinghe’s ministry, said that there were still security concerns which prevented a more widespread release.
He disputed the OCHA assessment and criticised some UN agencies for failing to provide adequate facilities for those in the camps, claiming that subcontractors used by Unicef in particular had carried out substandard work. He said the UN agencies had been urged to raise the standard of toilets and accommodation in the camps. Wijesinha said he did not think that so many people would be affected by the rains. “We don’t see this as potentially a major problem, but it is something we have to be careful about,” he said.
He said some people seemed determined to criticise the government whatever it did: “There are some people who prefer to be prophets of doom.”
If the camp does flood, moving the worst hit will not be simple because, as the OCHA report highlights, all but one of its eight zones are already overcrowded and the one which is not has room for fewer than another 2,000 people. Reports from people released from the camps, and those still inside, suggest conditions remain difficult, with limited access to water and good sanitation.
Much of the £12.5m donated to Sri Lanka by Britain in the past year has been used to help people in the camps and another £4.8m has been allocated but not yet spent.