Information from four specialists on current conditions in the North and East, the Vavuniya area and Colombo [LKA27048.EX]


On 1 May 1997, in Toronto, DIRB researchers interviewed four Sri Lanka specialists on the current situation in that country. The specialists were in Toronto to participate in the 2 May 1997 Information Session on Country Conditions in Sri Lanka, sponsored by the Members Professional Development Branch of the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB). A fifth conference participant, RCMP corporal Fred Bowen, was interviewed separately; the report based on that interview, which provides updated information on alien smuggling and document forgery, appears as Extended Response to Information Request LKA26917.EX of 9 June 1997. A transcript of the 2 May information session proceedings will be made available by the conference organizers through the Regional Documentation Centres.

The four specialists were as follows:

Charles Godfrey was posted to the Canadian High Commission in Colombo in July 1996, where he serves as Counsellor, Program Manager Immigration, and Deputy High Commissioner. Mr. Godfrey has served in Manila, New Delhi, Bogota, Port of Spain, Hong Kong and San Francisco since joining the Canadian foreign service in 1972.
Ravi Nair is executive director of the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre (SAHRDC) in New Delhi. Mr. Nair has been actively involved in South Asian human rights issues since the mid-1980s, working five years with Amnesty International's International Secretariat in London before joining SAHRDC in 1991. Further information on SAHRDC is available in the attachment to Response to Information Request IND26390.E of 17 February 1997.
Mayan V. Vijayapalan joined the British Refugee Council's Sri Lanka Project as an information officer in 1988, and in June 1996 was appointed project coordinator. A Hill-Country Tamil, Mr. Vijayapalan worked for the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC), the plantation workers trade union, from 1970 until arriving in Britain in 1983.
Joe William has many years experience working with peace and development groups in Sri Lanka. Formerly with the Social and Economic Development Centre (SEDEC) in Colombo, in June 1996 he joined the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) as a Colombo-based development advisor and is the executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka. Mr. William is a Tamil.

This Extended Response to Information Request updates the DIRB Question and Answer Series paper Sri Lanka: Political and Human Rights Update of August 1996, as well as numerous recent Responses to Information Requests on various aspects of the human rights situation in Sri Lanka. Please refer to these documents for additional information, as well as to the following recent reports: the UNHCR's Background Paper on Refugees and Asylum Seekers from Sri Lanka and U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) report Conflict and Displacement in Sri Lanka, both of March 1997, and the Refugee Council report Protection Denied: Sri Lankan Tamils, the Home Office and the Forgotten Civil War of February 1997.

The opinions expressed in this Response are those of the specialists and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IRB or the DIRB. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, either exhaustive with respect to conditions in the country surveyed or conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum.

The North (Jaffna):

According to Mr. Nair, a large number of people have returned to Jaffna since the December 1995 army operation that routed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). This movement is due to both the deplorable conditions in the Vavuniya camps and government efforts to repopulate the peninsula to show that the situation is returning to normal. Mr. William agreed that the government is encouraging people to return to Jaffna and mentioned government provision of free transportation to Jaffna as one example. He indicated that about 1,000 people per week have returned to Jaffna since the beginning of 1997. However, both Mr. William and Mr. Godfrey stated that the current population of Jaffna is 450,000-500,000, still well below the 1995 figure of 850,000.

Mr. Nair stated that while people are generally able to go about their business in Jaffna, life can be difficult for people who have special requirements or encounter major problems. One major obstacle to normalization is the absence of civil authority; the power of the army remains paramount in Jaffna. Mr. William clarified that the security forces do not control the entire peninsula and indicated that Jaffna can be divided into three types of areas: cleared (under government control), uncleared (controlled by the militants), and security areas around military bases. The threat of LTTE attack is ever-present and as a result security is very high, with military camps, fortifications and checkpoints everywhere. He stated that there are about 38,000-40,000 military personnel, 2,300 policemen and 300 police women in Jaffna, for a total of about eight per cent of the population, and compared Jaffna to a military encampment. Movement between cleared and uncleared areas does occur, but one must submit to numerous security checks by both the security forces and LTTE, and almost no one is permitted into security areas. Movement within the peninsula normally requires a National Identity Card (NIC) or some other identification document. A person may leave Jaffna for other parts of Sri Lanka but only with government permission, which may take three to six months to obtain. People leaving Jaffna for official purposes have less of a problem because it is assumed they will be returning.

Mr. Godfrey stated that security is the paramount issue in Jaffna. Cordon-and-search operations, in which specific areas are blocked off and no one is allowed to enter or leave until everyone has been checked and cleared, are frequent–perhaps every other week–but generally peaceful. Masked informants have reportedly been used during these operations, which generally last one day. He stated that the LTTE has attacked civilians in Jaffna and speculated that the purpose may be to provoke an over-reaction from the police or security forces.

Mr. William indicated that the all-night curfew instituted in December 1995 is still in effect, and although it was recently reduced from 10 to 9 hours (9 p.m. to 6 a.m.), people in Jaffna still suffer physical, geographic and psychological isolation. Life comes to a standstill in late afternoon as people scramble to get home before dark. Most of the infrastructure damaged during the war has yet to be repaired or rebuilt, and most people of working age (18-40 years) have left the peninsula. Mr. William indicated that there is no electricity, phone calls are restricted to three minutes, and schools and hospitals are operating but at greatly reduced capacity. There is no telephone service to militant-controlled areas of the peninsula. Mr. Vijayapalan stated that there are shortages of medicine, medical equipment and hospital staff in Jaffna, and that patients have died as a result. He also noted that transfer of patients between hospitals during curfew hours is not possible except with special permission from the army commander. People do not go out after curfew, according to Mr. William, and even if seriously sick probably would not go to a hospital. He added that it is difficult to generalize about what happens to people who break curfew.

Mr. Godfrey indicated that the curfew was reduced to 9 hours on 25 April 1997 and agreed that people likely would not go to a hospital after curfew. The curfew and shortage of electricity combine to create a very bleak situation in Jaffna from early evening until morning, he stated. He has heard that medicines are available and hospitals are functioning, but at reduced capacity. Stores in Jaffna are well-stocked but prices are 10 to 15 per cent higher than in Colombo. Powdered milk and meat are available, although meat is expensive. Less than 50 per cent of farm land is currently under cultivation, but vegetables are plentiful. About 65 per cent of teachers are back at their posts, 80 per cent of schools are functioning and enrolment at Jaffna University is at 65 to 70 per cent of its pre-1995 level. Electric power is scarce and households are allotted two or three light bulbs each. Since transmission lines are very vulnerable to sabotage, the little electricity available is supplied by generators. Gasoline is not available but diesel fuel can be had by permit. Banks are functioning and people can pick up their pensions, but parks, playgrounds, restaurants and hotels remain closed. Three international direct dialling (IDD) facilities have just opened, and a postal service operates by ship from Colombo. Tamil newspapers publish daily and radio broadcasts are received. There are no local NGOs in Jaffna and no programs for children traumatized by the fighting. Although the government administrator has been on duty since the start of the army operation, the civil administration as a whole is weak.

Mr. William, Mr. Godfrey and Mr. Vijayapalan all stated that disappearances are still a serious problem in Jaffna; Mr. William indicated that about 700 were reported in 1996, while Mr. Vijayapalan put the figure at about 600 and Mr. Godfrey at about 500 since December 1995. Most disappearances occurred in the southeastern area, according to Mr. Vijayapalan, who indicated that an association of the disappeared has been formed. He also stated that security forces operations in Jaffna were stepped up in the last half of April as a result of recently reported LTTE activity and that rapes by security forces personnel–most of which are never reported–are a concern, as is a recent spate of extrajudicial executions of people suspected of collaborating with the army. Mr. William indicated that the Human Rights Task Force (HRTF)1 had planned to open a Jaffna office in November 1996 but was denied permission by the government. Mr. Godfrey was uncertain about the current status of HRTF plans to open a Jaffna office.

Mr. Vijayapalan and Mr. William indicated that there are many internally displaced people (IDPs) in Jaffna. Mr. Vijayapalan explained that many homes were damaged in the fighting or are presently occupied by security forces personnel, with the result that many returnees must stay in camps. Mr. William estimated that there are 190,000 IDPs in 193 camps in Jaffna. Mr. Vijayapalan had no further information on the Jaffna camps but indicated that some returnees who wished to resettle in western Jaffna have been denied permission for security reasons. Mr. Godfrey explained that people who want to return to Jaffna have no choice but to go through a government camp in Vavuniya because there is no land route north through the Vanni2. Once cleared in Vavuniya returnees are bussed to Trincomalee, and from there are transported by ship to Jaffna. Until fairly recently they would have joined about 5,000 others waiting in camps for ships to Jaffna, he stated, but prior to leaving for the conference Mr. Godfrey was informed that more ships have been added to the Trincomalee-Jaffna route and that the backlog in Trincomalee has been cleared up. However, Mr. Vijayapalan stated that while there are four ships serving the Trincomalee-Jaffna route, there are still 8,000 people inside and outside camps who need clearance from government agencies before they can leave Trincomalee. The government agent in Vavuniya recently told Mr. Godfrey that 35 to 45 per cent of camp residents do not want to return to Jaffna, preferring instead to remain in the cleared areas of Vavuniya. Mr. Godfrey also mentioned that returnees are mostly the poor and impoverished, and that the wealthy and middle class have largely fled the peninsula.


Mr. Godfrey, who was in Vavuniya for two days in March 1997, stated that the situation there changed dramatically in October 1996 when the government established 13 welfare centres to clear people coming in from the Vanni. Initially promoted as having a capacity of 120,000 people, up to March 1997 these camps have never held more than 14,000 people. In addition to the 13 government-run camps there are two UNHCR camps. The latter are for returnees from India and are scheduled to be turned over to the government in June 1997. According to Mr. Godfrey, many people mistakenly believe the government-run camps are transit camps when in fact they are little more than detention camps. As conditions in the Vanni worsened, people came into Vavuniya with the belief that the camps provided a gateway to the south or to Jaffna. Once in the camps, however, people found they could not leave at will. According to Mr. Vijayapalan, some people have been stuck in the camps for six months now. Mr. Godfrey stated that of the 48,000 people who entered the Vavuniya camps between October 1996 and March 1997, 18,000 returned to Jaffna but fewer than 4,400 (nine per cent) have gone further south. Mr. Nair and Mr. William both stated that the authorities are keeping Tamils in the Vavuniya camps in order to keep them from going on to Colombo.

Mr. Nair stated that travel to Colombo is possible but requires a guarantee from a relative or someone else in Colombo. A fax is not acceptable, he explained, and while a letter is, the postal service is very slow. Mr. William indicated that the quickest way to get to Colombo for most people is to have a relative come to Vavuniya to personally vouch for them. He described Vavuniya as a gateway to the south, but a closed gateway. Mr. Nair added that even when someone has been cleared by a welfare centre in Vavuniya, he or she is still subject to counterchecks once in Colombo.

Mr. Godfrey stated that one sure way out of the Vavuniya camps is to return to Jaffna, but only certain categories of people can move further south. These include government employees and their families, employees of state-run enterprises such as the Bank of Ceylon, foreign workers and those who work abroad (visa and confirmed ticket required), university and other students who can show proof of enrolment, and someone going to stay with certain close relatives. For example, a parent or grandparent can stay with a child, and a child with a parent or grandparent, but a brother or sister cannot stay with a sibling in Colombo. Mr. William indicated that a member of one of these approved groups, or an "important" person such as a well-known athlete, can get through the camps in as little as three days, and that obtaining clearance in advance greatly speeds up the process. Payment of "speed money" (bribery) is another method of accelerating the process, he stated.

Mr. Godfrey stated that conditions in the Vavuniya camps are crowded and primitive, with accommodation consisting of long narrow sheds constructed of bare concrete floors covered by corrugated metal roofs. The military and police control all aspects of camp life. Until recently camp residents were provided a small sum to buy food at the camp canteens, but this has been replaced by a system of food stamps that provides for basic nutritional needs. They are also subject to periodic security checks, but Mr. Godfrey had no information on the details of these checks. Hospital visits are controlled and require a pass from the army. All of the specialists agreed that conditions at the base hospital in Vavuniya are very primitive, but Mr. Godfrey pointed out that it serves the town of Vavuniya as well, and that a mobile health unit periodically visits the camps. Four-hour passes into Vavuniya to go shopping or make phone calls are available, as are passes of up to three months to go to Colombo, although these are strictly controlled. Bribery is a common method of securing a needed pass. Mr. Godfrey was not sure whether people given three-month passes to Colombo are monitored to ensure they actually return to Vavuniya.

Mr. William mentioned that in addition to the 14,000 or 15,000 people in government-run camps, there are another 50,000 displaced people in the Vavuniya district living in non-government camps or outside of camps. Mr. Nair stated that there were more than 170,000 displaced people in government-controlled areas of Vavuniya at the end of 1996.


Mr. Nair stated that under Regulation 20A of the Emergency (Miscellaneous Provisions and Powers) Regulations (ERs) No. 4 of 1994–inserted into the ERs on 21 September 1995–everyone in Colombo must be registered with the police3. According to Mr. Godfrey, every householder must provide the district police station with the names of every family member, tenant, guest or servant in his household. Household registration is the responsibility of the householder, not of individual residents, he stated, and is required of everyone, whether Tamil or not and whether from Jaffna or another part of Colombo. Even nationals of other countries must be registered with police. Both Mr. William and Mr. Godfrey stated that these householders' lists identify Tamil households and individual Tamils to the authorities. However, Mr. Godfrey and Mr. Vijayapalan stated that the requirement to register is not absolute; the police interpret this as a mandatory requirement, but a person is legally required to register only if asked by a police official at the assistant superintendent level or higher. The onus is therefore on the police to ask, not on the individual to register. All of the specialists agreed that this is just a technicality, however; in reality registration is considered to be automatic and almost everyone "voluntarily" registers with police. Mr. Vijayapalan indicated that a challenge to the authorities' interpretation of the registration requirement is before the Supreme Court but has not yet been heard.

Mr. Nair and Mr. William stated that there is no central registration process. Each police station has a ledger in which the registrant's information is entered and a receipt is provided to prove registration, but each station keeps its own records. The system is not computerized and police stations normally do not share information. Someone who is registered in one district of Colombo and detained in another can spend several days waiting to be cleared, and once released can be rearrested at another checkpoint. Such a system, Mr. William explained, makes it very easy for the police to arbitrarily detain someone.

The specialists agreed that there are numerous checkpoints throughout Colombo. Mr. Nair indicated that a combination of fixed and moveable checkpoints is used, the precise number, type and location dependent on the level of "tension" in the city. Checkpoints proliferate during periods of heightened security concern and are dismantled as the situation returns to normal. Mr. William and Mr. Nair indicated that the amount of time required to clear a checkpoint varies from checkpoint to checkpoint, but the key issue is always verification of identity. The NIC is the standard identification document, but someone without an ID card may be able to pass by showing a passport, drivers licence or some other document. Providing proof of registration may be helpful but does not guarantee unhindered passage. A person with a NIC showing a Colombo address will generally pass more easily than someone whose NIC shows a Jaffna address. Mr. Nair mentioned that few soldiers speak Tamil, so crossing checkpoints can be very tedious for Tamils who do not speak Sinhalese. Communication problems at checkpoints can also cause minor problems to escalate very quickly. On the other hand Tamils who do speak Sinhalese can pass in as little as 30 seconds. Mr. William mentioned that some checkpoints are staffed by women and that security forces personnel regard vans with particular suspicion.

Mr. Godfrey stated that the key issue at checkpoints and in other forms of security checks is verification of identity; people must be able to prove they are who they say they are. The person most at risk of being detained is someone recently arrived from the North or East who was born there, is not registered in Colombo, has no ID card, no place to stay, no job, etc., but the risk decreases as each variable is removed from the mix. He stated that all residents of Colombo, including Sinhalese, are regularly stopped and checked, and indicated that the frequency with which someone is stopped depends more on the distance and routes travelled than it does on his or her ethnicity, neighbourhood or newness to Colombo. For example, he mentioned that one employee of his office was stopped 14 times in one month while other employees were stopped once or twice during the same period. The employee, a Sinhalese, had a long daily commute and crossed several security zones. Checkpoints and security checks are considered a way of life in Colombo, as is the constant presence of police and military personnel.

The specialists indicated that periodic round-ups and cordon-and-search operations are another form of security measure familiar to residents of Colombo. Mr. William stated that cordon-and-search operations are often carried out in areas with high concentrations of Tamils, such as neighbourhoods with Tamil lodges, and generally last two or three hours. Mr. Vijayapalan noted that 900 lodges were checked during the recent 17 April 1997 operation. Mr. Nair explained that cordon-and-search operations are irregular and are intended to catch people missed by normal security measures, which also explains why "spotters" or masked informants, are often used. Although most people are released immediately, he said that about nine to ten per cent are held for further questioning. Mr. William stated that whether people are detained or not is determined by how well they can establish their reasons for being in the area. Mr. Godfrey explained that the number of cordon-and-search operations has declined recently. Only three major operations have been carried out since January 1996, and these occurred during periods of heightened security concern. The January 1996 and July 1996 operations followed bombings, while the April 1997 operation came after the arrest of a Black Tiger at a Colombo checkpoint. About 500 people were taken in for questioning in the April 1997 operation, and of these about 50 were detained. Mr. Godfrey reiterated that the main issue in these operations is verification of identity. People who live in the area and can produce an ID card are generally cleared on the spot, but people who cannot prove their identity are taken to the police station for further questioning.

Mr. Nair stated that only about nine per cent of those held for questioning are detained, and of these a much smaller number are actually served detention orders. The rest are released after having been held for a short period and cleared. Mr. Nair and Mr. Godfrey indicated that in order to prevent the rearrest of someone who has been detained and cleared, the police are under written orders to issue them with a receipt. Mr. William mentioned that a standard numbered receipt is used that lists the person's name, address, date of arrest and place of issue, and that a copy is kept at the police station. The three specialists agreed, however, that police usually do not comply with this requirement. Mr. William and Mr. Nair also indicated that a detainee's relatives are supposed to be notified within 24 hours and given the reason for arrest, but the police often fail to observe this requirement too. The law requires that all detentions be reported to the HRTF, but this is not always done. Mr. William mentioned that the use of unauthorized detention centres is also a concern.

Mr. Nair stated that the problem of illegal detentions is a far more serious issue than whether or not someone has been issued a receipt for a legal detention. He also indicated that many detainees are harassed or threatened while in custody, either for purposes of extortion or to intimidate them. He clarified, however, that a person's social status definitely affects how he or she is treated by the police. Mr. William mentioned an incident in which he and three colleagues travelling by van to Polonnaruwa were taken to the Polonnaruwa police station for questioning. The officer who stopped them said that the police had information about some Tamils travelling by van and that the officer-in-charge wanted to see them. Not only was the officer-in-charge not there, but, after the police had opened all of their bags and stripped the vehicle and found nothing, they had to give statements. The police made Mr. William wait more than an hour before taking his statement, which took about 90 minutes to record because he had to recount his life story, literally from the day he was born. They wanted to know where he studied, who his friends and colleagues were, and where they were staying in Polonnaruwa. Everyone in the group had to give a statement. When they asked if they could leave and the police said they first had to verify the information, Mr. William demanded to talk to the Senior Superintendent of Police or the parish priest of Polonnaruwa, both of whom he named and provided phone numbers for. A few phone calls were made and suddenly the men were free to leave, more than seven hours after arriving. According to Mr. William, an average person without his connections would have been at the station much longer. This kind of incident happens all the time, he stated.

Mr. Godfrey indicated that the degree of police respect for human rights varies from district to district within Colombo and declines the further one gets from the city. He also noted that the degree of police respect for human rights varies with the degree of their suspicions about a given suspect. Mr. Nair stated that police impunity and lack of accountability is a serious problem, one aggravated by the government's failure to send police a clear message about human rights abuses. He noted that three presidential inquiries into human rights abuses have resulted in no convictions of police officers. In most cases accused officers returned to normal duties after being released on bail or transferred to another station.

The Peace Process:

Mr. William, the executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, expressed his ongoing frustration with the state of the peace process. Both sides say they are prepared for peace but in the meantime pursue military solutions to the conflict. The government wants to talk peace, stated Mr. William, but only after it has defeated the LTTE militarily. The LTTE has stated that it is ready to negotiate but continues to launch attacks in which dozens of civilians are killed. Mr. William is not optimistic about the short-term prospects for peace. Moreover, even if an agreement is achieved and the war ends, both sides need to better respect human rights or the abuses will only continue. Mr. William reckons that a lot of work still needs to be done in this area.


Godfrey, Charles A. Counsellor, Program Manager Immigration and Deputy High Commissioner, Canadian High Commission, Colombo. 1 May 1997. DIRB panel interview in Toronto.

Nair, Ravi. Executive Director, South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre (SAHRDC), New Delhi. 1 May 1997. DIRB panel interview in Toronto.

Vijayapalan, Mayan V. Project Coordinator, Sri Lanka Project, British Refugee Council, London. 1 May 1997. DIRB panel interview in Toronto.

William, Joseph Vethamanickam. Development Advisor, Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and Executive Director, National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, Colombo. 1 May 1997. DIRB panel interview in Toronto.


Deputy Chair's Office (DCO), Convention Refugee Determination Division (CRDD). 2 May 1997. Information on Country Conditions in Sri Lanka: Biographical Notes on the Speakers. Ottawa: Immigration and Refugee Board.

Minority Rights Group (MRG). February 1996. Sri Lanka: A Bitter Harvest. London: Minority Rights Group, p. 8. (map)

Sri Lanka. 21 September 1995. The Emergency (Miscellaneous Provisions and Powers) Regulations, No. 4 of 1994, as amended under section 5 of The Public Security Ordinance (Chapter 40) and published in The Gazette of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka (Extraordinary). Sri Lanka: Department of Government Printing, p. 1A. Photocopy provided to the DIRB by the Minister Counsellor at the High Commission of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka on 6 May 1997.


1 The HRTF was established by the Sri Lankan government in July 1991 to monitor the treatment of detainees. For further information on the HRTF, please refer to footnote 5 of the August 1996 DIRB Question and Answer Series paper Sri Lanka: Political and Human Rights Update.

2 The Vanni is a loosely defined region between Vavuniya and Jaffna comprised of both government- and LTTE-controlled jungle areas of Mullaitivu, Kilinochchi, Vavuniya and Mannar districts.

3 Mr. Nair and Mr. William noted that there was some form of registration requirement in Colombo as far back as 1983, well before the 21 September 1995 changes to the ERs,