However, the specific complaint of the petitioner in the case is the restriction imposed by the government on the people’s right of movement. The displaced people are being kept inside a highly restricted area under extreme security measures. They cannot move outside, nor can their relatives and friends enter freely to visit them.
Refugees and displaced persons are those who choose on their own accord to leave their homes due to life-threatening dangers. The decision to leave, and later to seek government help for an alternate place to stay, is their choice, though compelled no doubt by circumstances.
Anyone in such circumstances has the choice to seek refuge or to live by his or her own resources. No government has the right to keep people forcibly in refugee camps if they choose to leave and find their own means of living.
The helplessness of displaced people should not be manipulated to keep them in places against their will. No government has the right to force people to live under conditions to which they do not consent. Just as all citizens have the right of consent regarding what they do, whom they marry and under whom they work, they have the right of consent regarding their living circumstances.
The only exception is people who have violated the law. Internally displaced persons are not criminals and therefore no government is entitled to treat them as such.
The case currently filed with the Supreme Court is of great significance as it involves fundamental rights. The complainants claim that they are being held in camps without their consent and authorities are preventing them from going to the homes of relatives and friends who have clearly expressed their wish to take them in and look after them.
The Sri Lankan government pledged before the Human Rights Council that it would resettle internally displaced persons within six months. However, a U.N. official in Sri Lanka has expressed the view that this will not be possible in such a short period. Further, the official pointed out that the government’s intention to keep these people in camps for a longer time is manifest by the permanent structures being put up within the camps. The government’s excuse for the delay is that the process of screening these people may take a longer time.
Meanwhile, Tamil religious leaders and humanitarian agencies are drawing the attention of the government and the international community to the conditions of the displaced people, which they describe as extremely harsh. Constant calls for food, water and sanitary conditions are being made by local as well as international humanitarian agencies.
Although government officials have repeatedly stated that addressing the needs of the displaced persons is a top priority, in fact the government has continued its militaristic approach, motivated by security fears. This approach is unjustified, as the security threat forced by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam has ceased to exist. The government has admitted this over and over again.
Treating internally displaced persons with suspicion – and virtually imposing sentences on them by keeping them in the camps – no longer has any basis. The security mentality that developed due to the terrorism practiced by the LTTE should now be discarded. The return to freedom and normal human relationships will help to bring an end to an era of conflict and the mentalities developed during that time.
The government needs to approach this problem from a democratic point of view and with firm respect for the rights of its citizens. The militaristic approach creates an impression that the displaced people, who are Tamils, are being punished. It is not acceptable for the government to disregard the honor and dignity of its citizens under any circumstances, and particularly when they have faced a disaster caused by reasons beyond their control.
The task of clearing landmines may delay the return of some people to their homes. However, this would affect only a small number of people. Holding all the internally displaced persons until all landmines are cleared is unjustified. Besides, even those who cannot return to their homes due to landmines should be allowed to leave the camps if they have alternative living arrangements available.
Source: Displaced persons are not prisoners