US: Tamils ‘confined against their will’ in Sri Lanka camps

[TamilNet, Thursday, 20 August 2009, 01:49 GMT]
The United States’ top official dealing with humanitarian crisis reiterated Wednesday the Obama administration’s demand that Tamil civilians held in Sri Lanka’s militarised camps be allowed to leave freely. “Our position is that people who are displaced should be agents of their own destiny,” Eric P. Schwartz, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, said. Responding to reporters’ asking about his comments during a visit to Sri Lanka, Mr. Schwartz clarified: “I don’t think there’s anything ambiguous about “confinement against their will.”

In his opening remarks about World Humanitarian Day, Mr. Schwartz said: “I guess the starting point for me are the words of the Secretary of State. Secretary Clinton said at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that she will do her very best to elevate the attention of the U.S. Government to refugee issues and to develop comprehensive strategies to address humanitarian crises.”

“And there are many reasons why protection of the most vulnerable populations should be at the center of policymaking.

“First, there’s the moral imperative, the imperative of saving lives. And I have to tell you it’s remarkable how consistent and generous has been the support of the American people and the U.S. Congress for very large levels of assistance, and that is a – that imposes upon us in the Administration, I think, a very profound responsibility to do the job right.

“Second, it’s critical that we sustain United States leadership on these issues, the policy benefits of which are enabling us to drive the development of principles, policy, and programs. It’s essential that we strengthen partnerships with key friends and allies and their populations and the populations of our adversaries where our efforts not only help to break down negative images and stereotypes, but also communicate to the world at large our commitment to principles of responsible U.S. engagement overseas.

“…And finally, we have the key goal of promoting conditions of reconciliation, of security, of well-being in circumstances where – in circumstances where despair, desperation, and misery not only impact prospects for stability, but also can dramatically affect the interests of the United States….

“….And we have a special role to play, as the breadth of all humanitarian engagement really is quite remarkable. In short, if there’s an international humanitarian crisis anywhere in the world, the resources of the United States, of the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development, the civilian resources of the United States, in one way or another, is likely to be there in support of protection of victims.”

The following are extracts relating to Sri Lanka of Mr. Schwartz’s Q&A with the press:

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: ….In Sri Lanka, where our efforts this year have amounted to over $50 million in humanitarian assistance, I visited there last month. It’s a very difficult situation. Some 280,000 people, at the time of my visit, were remaining in camps, the vast majority of whom were in the Manik Farm complex which I visited.

QUESTION: Which complex?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Manik – M-a-n-i-k – Farm. And in the period of my visit and thereafter, we learned that the government had reported – had told us that as many as 75,000 people would be leaving the camps during the month of August. That was – I guess, on some level, it was encouraging news, but the basic principle of freedom of movement is at play in Sri Lanka. Everywhere around the world, displaced persons make their own judgments about when it is right to go back. And people, we have found, are pretty good judges of their own best interests.

In Sri Lanka, the continued confinement against – involuntary confinement is especially a source of concern given the recent rains and given the coming of the monsoon season, and it makes it all the more important that release from confinement be an issue that friends of Sri Lanka continue to raise. This – I had told my counterparts in Sri Lanka that I would be returning to continue our engagement with the government and others in Sri Lanka on these issues. I very much welcome the fact that they welcomed my coming back, and I certainly intend to do that in the near future.

Before I close, let me emphasize one other thing. We don’t only deal with the headline crises. That’s not what humanitarians are supposed to do and it’s not what we do. We try to keep our attention focused anywhere in the world where large numbers of people are suffering and the dimensions of the crisis requires some degree of international engagement.

QUESTION: Can you talk about the couple of euphemisms, really – the freedom of movement is at play, as you said in Sri Lanka, and then you spoke of the continued confinement. Could you speak a little bit more about your trip? There was some rather confusing reporting that emerged after your trip as to what you had or hadn’t said to the Sri Lankans in terms of people’s confinement. Maybe if you could just --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Well, I mean, I don’t think – I don’t think there’s anything ambiguous about the word of “confinement against their will.” That phrase – I’m not sure what other meaning you can draw from the phrase “confinement against their will,” and that’s what I said, in Sri Lanka. I spoke about three minutes ago – I used the phrase “release from confinement.” I’m not quite – and I spoke about freedom of movement, and I said that displaced persons everywhere around the world make their own decisions and choices about when they feel they want to go home. So I think all of those sentences and phrases, you know, are pretty unambiguous. You know, so our position is that people who are displaced should be agents of their own destiny. If I could think of another way to say it, I would.

QUESTION: So how many people are you talking about? What are the figures that you have? And are people being – I mean, maybe if – did you go to that area, have a look and see the conditions the people who were being confined in?

QUESTION: Being held against their will in?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Well, I went to this very large facility in Vavuniya, and it’s a very large displaced person camp and it looks like displaced person camps in many other parts of the world. And conditions were not great. People were getting basic services. The camp administrators and the nongovernmental organization partners and the international organizations that are on the ground were doing, I think, everything within their power to make life as livable for these people as possible.

But nobody wants to be in such a place. And there were a number of issues that I identified that I felt, if acted upon, could make the conditions of that situation better. And those included providing more access to information for people. In my limited encounters with people in the camp, I was struck by the fact that they really had no sense of – or little sense of what was going to happen to them, what the plans were for them. And I think people, generally speaking, who are in difficult circumstances, can deal with those circumstances more effectively emotionally and psychologically if they have some sense of what the future brings.

Secondly, I felt that while there are some international organizations that are present in these camps and are doing great work, I felt that access to these camps should be easier for international providers of assistance and protection, and the government should make it, as I say, easier for outsiders to get in, both to conduct their assistance and protection activities. And I made those points very clearly in my meetings in Sri Lanka.

QUESTION: So when you say conditions were not great, I mean, were there communicable diseases? Do people have enough food? When you said there were basic services, that doesn't really – could you just explain? What do you mean by conditions were not great? They’re not great for most IDP camps.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Well, what I mean are a few things. Number one, there has been some survey of camp populations which indicates – which had indicated higher than – relatively high levels of malnutrition, wasting among children. Now, there was some belief that some of that may have been caused by the conflict itself and the surveying that took place shortly after people got into the camps, but I think that is, by definition, a source of concern.

There is concern about communicable diseases, especially when you’re in a temporary facility. And on one level, we want that facility – those facilities to be temporary because we don’t want them to take on the character of permanence. But if they are temporary, when things like rain happen, the latrines get washed away and the potential for communicable diseases get much greater, which is all the more reason to give people choices about what they should or should not be doing, can or cannot be doing.

External Links:
AFP: US warns of conditions in Sri Lanka camps


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