World’s Largest Internment Camp Menik Farm to be Closed Down Permanently This Week

by Dilrukshi Handunnetti

The name Menik Farm, can only conjure up memories of one kind; of displacement, overcrowding, unhealthy conditions and even flooding. Three years after the war, and after multiple deadlines for its closure, the camp that grabbed international headlines will be finally empty this week.

Recently returned IDPs meet with Ambassador Michelle J. Sison, Sep 18. These communities near Jaffna received assistance from USAID to support their new homes – items such as water pumps and housing assistance have made for a much better transition – pic: via facebook.com/usembassycolombosl

Moves are underway to bring closure to the Menik Farm resettlement programme; a site that currently contains only 1,185 internally displaced persons (IDPs). Government officials are said to be working together with aid agencies to help resettle the people who are ready to leave the site.

It is a moment both Sri Lanka and the international community had long- waited for.

Recognized as the world’s largest internment camp extending over 700 hectares, Menik Farm during the height of the war and until 2010, housed up to 80% of the country’s total IDP population. It was originally demarcated into nine zones and contained 21 closed camps.

As of 30 December, 2008, some 281,698 displaced persons and an additional 300,000 IDPs lived within Menik Farm, some of them since the 1990s.

The camp’s overcrowding has been a key concern together with its appalling living conditions. Sri Lankan authorities have been often berated for the non-adherence to the UN Sphere Standards that required the camp not to house beyond 160,000 persons. Post-war, under a 180-day resettlement plan, some 283,000 IDPs were expeditiously resettled by the authorities, thus reducing the stress within Menik Farm due to overcrowding.

“We are moving the final batch out of the camp site this week. They will resettle in their places of origin. The Resettlement Authority will assist in the process together with other government and aid agencies,” Minister of Resettlement, Gunaratne Weerakoon, said.

Delays in resettlement

Admittedly, the resettlement initiative is many months late, and Weerakoon responds that deadlines did not necessarily matter when there are practical issues to deal with first. “The camp closure took three years due to multiple reasons. A key problem was the ongoing demining and our inability to resettle people in areas with mine risk. Large parts of Mullaithivu are still unsafe, so we will go there slowly,” he said.

But mine risk was only one aspect that caused the delay. A key issue was the lack of infrastructure for the returnees. “They had no homes to return to. First, they need to build a home for themselves. That takes time and assistance from others, both financial and labour. This cannot be statistical resettlement, juggling numbers of people and houses,” he insisted.

In place of former homes and public buildings, there is mostly rubble. For the returnees therefore, it is about building from scratch, not just homes, but also livelihoods and generally life itself. “In the camps we found people who have suffered multiple displacements. They have been displaced by the war more than once or by some natural disaster. It is not easy,” Sangampillai, an aid worker from Puthukudiruppu said

In the meantime, efforts continue to reduce mine risk in and around the areas of the return. According to UN statistics, still there is significant mine risk in several areas in the Northern Province.

Since 2008, at least 70 incidents of mine or explosive remnants have been recorded together with 11 deaths and 68 injuries. It is a safety issue the mine action teams continue to warn people against.

According to the Mine Action Project of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), there are some 112 square km of land contaminated across 10 districts, with most of the risky areas falling within the Mullaithivu District.

As the site prepares to close, the temporary shelters that collectively formed Menik Farm are being dismantled while the final batch of people prepares to leave the camp premises. Facilitating the process is Vavuniya’s Government Agent, Bandula Harischandra, who said that all government agencies were working together to ensure the IDPs are returned.

“Within the massive camp areas, there are permanent structures such as hospitals and schools. But once people are resettled in their places of origin, the area can be open for public purposes,” Harischandra said, adding, “It was no mean achievement.”

Set up grants

For the remaining 405 families within Menik Farm, the government has plans to assist in their return, with special resettlement packages on offer.

This includes a set up grant of Rs 25,000 (US$192), dry food items up to nine months at the time of resettlement, and cooked food for two weeks, said Chairman, Resettlement Authority, B. H. Passaperuma.

Besides, the government is introducing multiple livelihood support schemes, though aid agencies say that what is on offer would prove inadequate for complete recovery from their displaced status.

Explaining the resettlement programme, Minister Gunaratne Weerakoon said that work continued under seven key focus areas. “Our priorities are water and sanitation, road access to IDP villages, electricity, education, community development initiatives, fishing and agriculture and livelihood support.”

But he emphasized that resettlement did not mean that the government would withdraw assistance, both financial and labour. “We are keen to see them not just return to their places of origin, but also pick up the pieces of their life. We want to see individuals who are capable of overcoming the rubble of war, and build a future in post-war Sri Lanka with pride,” he said.

“This means, once resettled, we will continue to work with them towards their welfare,” he added.

Livelihood support

According to Shanthi Sachithanandam who operates Viluthu, or the Centre for Human Resource Development, who is also an activist working with women’s groups in Sri Lanka’s North and the East, resettlement can become only meaningful with livelihood support and options. “Post-displacement should be an opportunity to grow. This means, there should be options and opportunities,” she said.

It is a sentiment echoed by many others, including other groups working on livelihood support for the communities, including the returnees.

According to S. Thavaratnam, the President of the Fishermen’s Co-operative Society Unions’ Federation in Jaffna, the two areas that should be supported are fisheries and agriculture. “These are our two livelihood options. We have now returned to the seas and are back at deep-sea fishing, following the lifting of the ban on fishing. The government must focus on returnees specially, and offer new initiatives and incentives,” he said.

For most inhabitants, including the returnees, it is a moment they have been waiting for; to return home after three years inside a camp for the war-displaced.

It will be a special week for the 405 IDP families finally able to leave Menik Farm and resettle in their native places. To be meaningful resettlement, they need not just options, but opportunities and above all, hope and faith in a future without war – complete with progress.

They will walk out of Menik Farm this week, both with hope and apprehension. There is work to be done, post-resettlement.

For their sake, it needs to be comprehensive and meaningful. Menik Farm needs to tell a new story, one of development and progress.

Deadlines and achievements

When Menik Farm IDP Camp was set up in 2009 as the country’s largest internment site, the government set itself an ambitious deadline of one year to empty it. For all the IDP camps, it was to be three years, post-war.

On 7 May 2009, the government announced plans to resettle 80% of the IDPs by the end of the year. A further deadline of May 2009 followed after the President assured that most of the IDPs would be assisted to resettle in their places of origin within 180 days.

Deadlines were further revised by July 2009, with the government announcing that resettlement targets remained targets and not a concrete promise. This time, the target was 50-60% of resettlement by November 2009. A government letter of intent to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), claimed that it aimed to resettle 70-80% of the IDPs by the year’s end.

By August 2009, less than 12,000 IDPs, a mere five per-cent of the IDP population, had been released or returned to their places of origin.

Among the most dramatic events concerning Menik Farm occurred, when the 2009 monsoons flooded the camp area, raising concerns about the IDPs health and of overcrowding. Subsequently, more IDPs were resettled while some were held in military-operated ‘closed’ transit sites in their home districts. These IDPs had serious restrictions on movement.

In October 2009, the government accelerated resettlement in the areas formerly controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and claimed to have released 41,685 IDPs. The programme was further accelerated in November and December.

There was another increase in the resettlement pace in mid and late 2010, and by December 2010, an impressive 94% or 326,000 IDPs, had been released or returned to their places of origin. Only 21,000 were held in the camps.

Resettlement continued in small batches throughout 2011 and while other camps remain in operation with a small number of IDPs, Menik Farm is set to close this week with the resettlement of 1,185 persons returning to their places of origin courtesy: Ceylon Today