Focus on tsunami overlooks Sri Lanka's war refugees

The 90,000 people displaced by civil war have received a slower response, threatening to deepen ethnic grievances.

Kandya Parwathy and her family live in abject poverty and discomfort in a sprawling camp in northern Sri Lanka. They are refugees, not from the tsunami 12 months back, but from battles years ago in the island's civil war.

"We want to leave this place as quickly as possible," says Mrs. Parwathy, gesturing at the small room she and nine others have subsisted in for nearly a decade. "There's only one water well and one toilet in our unit for hundreds of people."

The record aid that quickly targeted Sri Lankans displaced by the tsunami has highlighted the predicament of roughly 90,000 longer-standing war refugees like Parwathy, posing, some suggest, an obstacle to Sri Lanka's struggle to achieve peace.

Aid workers say these war refugees have received nothing like the speedy help delivered to tsunami refugees, even though some war refugees have languished in camps ever since the onset of hostilities between the government and separatist Tamil Tiger rebels in 1983.

The war refugees come mainly from the Tamil community, the biggest minority in Sri Lanka, which feels it is discriminated against by the majority Sinhalese community. The civil war flows from this claim of discrimination. Refugee experts worry the aid disparity could exacerbate Tamil ethnic grievances.

The advocacy group Refugees International took up the issue in a recent report based on an inspection of Sri Lankan refugee camps. It labels the disparities in aid as "unjust." The report also describes the aid funds available to war refugees as "meager" compared with the "generous outpouring" for tsunami survivors.

"The international community and the government of Sri Lanka must act immediately to rectify this injustice if Sri Lanka is to achieve stability and peace," it says.

Meanwhile, recent violence is undermining a fragile cease-fire and is adding to the refugee problem. Fearing a resumption of the civil war, scores of Tamil families in northern Sri Lanka have fled their homes in Army-held territory to seek refuge in Tiger-controlled areas.

After the tsunami, donors pledged about $3 billion in 2005 to rebuild Sri Lanka and provide shelter to an estimated 516,000 displaced survivors.

Timmo Gaasbeek, an aid worker with ZOA Refugee Care, says the largest aid agencies received money earmarked specifically for the tsunami, which they cannot, therefore, spend on war refugees. That, combined with the sheer amount of money raised for tsunami relief, has led to "an imbalance," he says.

"In 2005, work in war-affected areas was reduced because aid workers have been shifted to tsunami-affected areas," Mr. Gaasbeek adds. "The whole tsunami response was the first time ever that there was enough money for aid agencies. That's what distinguishes it."

One of the key tsunami aid projects was to construct about 55,000 transitional shelters for homeless victims as quickly as possible. In November, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said the target had been hit in less than a year.

But, while purpose-built transitional shelters have been given to some war refugees, too, aid workers say they have taken longer to construct. Many still have yet to receive any such shelters.

Under another initiative, both war refugees and those left homeless by the tsunami can receive cash grants of about $2,500 towards building permanent homes.

But in coastal areas, "there is in reality a lot more money, and people are spending double or triple that," according to Gaasbeek. "In the war-affected areas, the standard is still $2,500. The pressure is on building tsunami houses," he says.

"After the tsunami hit, the war-affected people were forgotten about," says Naresh Newton, a director of The Sewalanka Foundation, an aid organization. He is based in Vavuniya, where Parwathy's family and 10,000 other war refugees reside.

"Funds were also reduced and there is much less resettlement taking place," Mr. Newton says. "Not many of the new aid organizations operating in Sri Lanka since the tsunami are working with the war-affected."

Suspension of an interim aid- sharing agreement between the Sri Lankan government and the Tigers, who control areas containing thousands of war refugees, has complicated matters, Newton adds.

Many war refugees are in or near conflict zones, he says, making life difficult since permits are required to transport construction materials.

In its report, Refugees International did find some hope that the aid-response gap between war and tsunami refugees might start to close. The advocacy group says the UNHCR in Colombo is to seek government approval and donor funding to relocate the most vulnerable war refugees by the end of 2006. Moves were also afoot to allow tsunami relief funds to be spent on war refugees, it adds.

But any such measures could be disrupted by fresh fighting. The island's stalled peace process has already delayed the disbursement of $4.5 billion in international aid promised in 2003.

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