A visiting senior United Nations official on Friday expressed “strong concerns” over Sri Lanka’s war refugees and said the government had been slow to resettle tens of thousands of displaced civilians.
“We have not seen the progress we expected from that agreement,” UN undersecretary-general for political affairs Lynn Pascoe said of a deal between Colombo and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in May.
The agreement was for the speedy resettlement of 300,000 internally displaced people (IDP) who were displaced after the end of fighting between troops and Tamil Tiger rebels.
“Clearly, the government is making a lot of effort, but we have some strong concerns,” Pascoe told reporters here after touring camps where ethnic Tamil civilians are hold in what rights groups say are prison-like conditions.
“But we have some strong concerns. The UN is concerned over the lack of free movement of IDPs, particularly the ‘closed’ nature of the camps,” he said at the end of his three-day visit.
“We picked up great frustrations. I was told by many that they just wanted to go home,” Pascoe said. “I urged the government to allow people who were screened, to be allowed to leave.
“For others, to leave the camps in the daytime to find work, to meet with family, to visit families in other camps,” he said.
He said Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse on Friday agreed to issue “day passes” for inmates allowing them to leave the camps during the daytime.
“As the situation currently stands in the camps, there is a real risk of breeding resentment that will undermine the prospects for a political reconciliation in the future,” he said.
There was no immediate reaction from the government, but the government in a statement earlier in the day said Rajapakse had promised Pascoe to resettle war-displaced civilians by January.
The president also brushed aside Western demands for a probe into war crimes in the final stages of the decades-old conflict, saying the global body should not “pacify” Western countries which have been seeking a UN investigation.
“Considering the understanding that existed between the UN and Sri Lanka, President Rajapakse said he did not expect the UN to pacify any members, big or small, about the situation in Sri Lanka,” his office said in a statement.
“With the new (mine-clearing) equipment in use, and hopefully more to come, we expected the entire resettlement to be completed by the end of next January,” he told Pascoe, the presidency said in a statement.
“I look forward to things been done on the timetable assured by the president,” Pascoe said of the end-January deadline.
Pascoe was sent by Ban, who has voiced concern over delays in resettling Tamil civilians living in what the government calls “welfare villages.”
“I understand the pressure and constraints on the (UN) Secretary General. However, you must also understand the problems we face,” Rajapakse said in the statement, referring to the need to screen the camps for rebels.
Sri Lanka has resisted calls for war-crimes investigations into its recent crushing of the Tamil separatist insurgency and, with support from China and Russia, managed to stave off a UN Security Council debate on the issue.
The UN has said that up to 7,000 civilians may have perished in the first few months of this year when security forces escalated their offensive against the remnants of the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Pascoe said that he saw some efforts to provide facilities for the refugees displaced by the violence, but added that people were impatient and wanted to go back to their homes at the earliest.
A UN statement issued before Pascoe’s arrived here said he would discuss resettlement, political reconciliation and ways to probe alleged human rights violations during the conflict.