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Page last updated at 07:39 GMT, Thursday, 7 May 2009 08:39 UK
Despair among Sri Lanka's refugees

By Andrew Hosken
Today programme

In Sri Lanka they're known simply as IDPs, or Internally Displaced Persons.

The true figure of the total number of war refugees is unknown but the UN now calculates that 192,000 people have fled the conflict zone in north Sri Lanka in recent weeks.

Children play in homes
Families appear to be comfortable but talk about missing their homes

Aside from the terrible humanitarian cost, this is a crisis which has proved particularly heavy for a relatively small country and its 20 million population.

The UN, foreign governments and NGOs have all given aid but there's been deep concern about the conditions in which many refugees are being held by the Sri Lankan government.

We visited several collection points for aid in the capital, Colombo. Charities, whether Tamil, Muslim or Buddhist, have all been collecting what they can from people - rich and poor. Boxes of soap and biscuits, sacks of clothes and rice and packets of water and noodles are all pouring in.

While it's been easy to report from these centres, it's been much more difficult for the western and local media to gain access to the refugee camps themselves.

Sometimes we use the boats of our friends in Batticaloa. But it's not like using our own boats and it's not like being in our own home village

After several failed attempts to gain the relevant government permission to visit the most recent camps for refugees in the north around the town of Vavuniya, we decided to try our luck at gaining access to some of the more established refugee camps in the eastern town of Batticaloa.

Government armies finally forced the Tamil Tigers (or LTTE - Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) from much of the east of the island a year ago but it has used Batticaloa as a centre for many of the refugees caught up in the fighting over the last three years.

At one point there were approximately 200,000 people in camps here. Now the figure is closer to 8,000. But there is mounting desperation for those who remain to be resettled.

We visited a camp based near the centre of the town and spoke to the people there. It was made up of 30 large single tier huts of corrugated iron each holding about four families. In total, the camp holds approximately 340 Tamil people.

At first inspection, the conditions at the camp seemed to be reasonable, if rudimentary. There was water for drinking and washing, a well-maintained channel for waste, a small shop on camp selling basic supplies and even a play area for children.

Families appeared to be well fed, comparatively free to move and, above all, together and safe.

Family in camp
Some families have lived in the camp for a number of years

At the time of our visit, everyone knew how long they had lived there: three years, ten days and counting.

"One minute here is like a year," said one man. "We're counting the days. We're trying our best to go home, but the Sri Lankan government is not allowing us."

A grandmother told us: "We were living very happily with a lot of opportunities for our children.

"We had good agricultural facilities and a good fishing business. We had good wealth and high living standards. But here our children have nothing."

Others had a similar story - including a carpenter who had been forced to give up a thriving business in his home town 140km away.

A fisherman from the same town said: "It's been difficult for me because I don't know any other occupation. Sometimes we use the boats of our friends in Batticaloa. But it's not like using our own boats and it's not like being in our own home village."

According to some, conditions in some of the more recent refugee camps in the northern conflict area may be much starker. We interviewed one aid worker who asked not to be named. She had recently visited camps around Vavuniya and also knew of the conditions in the camps we visited in the east.

Minefields near the camps
Tamil Tigers were driven out of Batticaloa last year

She told us: "The crucial difference [between the north and the east] is that people are imprisoned in the camps [in the north].

"They can't go out to trace missing family members and that's a lot of human suffering. I think the government considers the north to be much more sensitive and the chance of infiltration by the LTTE [Tamil Tigers] is considered higher than in the east."

Charitha Herath, a senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Peradeniya, acts as a consultant on the media to the Sri Lankan government's department of mass media and information.

He criticised sections of the western media for its double standards, claiming that it used different vocabulary when describing Sri Lanka's war against terror in the form of the LTTE, as compared to the language it used when describing the west's battle against al-Qaeda and Taleban-sponsored terrorism.

He told us that the government had been angered by what it had saw as a much more hostile approach to its own struggle against the LTTE.

Sri Lankan government ministers see many western media outlets as supporters of the LTTE, whether tacitly or openly. He said this support was also expressed through criticism of Sri Lanka's humanitarian efforts coupled with demands for a ceasefire.

"A lot of foreign media cannot understand the sensitivity and the gravity of the situation in a country that's facing violent terrorism," says Mr Herath. "The western media can come and get information from this country. This is not a completely closed country."

Although surrounded by five army divisions, the Tamil Tigers still hold a coastal strip of about 4km and are staging a desperate last stand under their leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran.

And although the army says the figure is lower, some leading Tamil moderates calculate there could be as many as 100,000 men, women and children with them in the so-called No Fire Zone.

In the short term, the humanitarian crisis is likely to get worse before it gets better.


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