Menik Farm closure unlikely by year-end

COLOMBO, 9 December 2010 (IRIN) - Government plans to close Menik Farm, the country's largest camp for internally displaced persons (IDP), by the end of December are in doubt.

"I'm not fully sure that we can close Menik Farm camp by the end of this year. It all depends on the landmine situation," Rishad Bathiudeen, a senior government minister and former minister of resettlement and disaster relief services, told IRIN.

According to the UN's latest Joint Humanitarian Update, since the start of operations in January 2009, the government and its mine action partners have cleared almost 432 sqkm. However, surveys have identified an additional 536 sqkm of contamination in Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu, Vavuniya and Mannar districts, including residual contamination in the Eastern Province.

Agencies cleared 5.5 sqkm in October and 2.9 sqkm in November respectively.

Menik Farm, on more than 500 hectares outside the town of Vavuniya in northern Sri Lanka, was once home to some 280,000 IDPs. In 2009, the IDPs fled fighting between government forces and the now defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which had been fighting for an independent Tamil homeland for almost 30 years.

According to the UN, some 21,000 IDPs remain in the camp, about 270km from Colombo, most of whom come from the heavily mine-contaminated areas in Puthukudiyiruppu DS and Maritimepattu DS (Mullaitivu District).

Since the return process began in August 2009, more than 300,000 conflict-displaced have returned to the north from the camp, as well as more than a dozen other IDPs camps that were hastily set up by the government in the final days of the conflict.

The government had long sought an end-of-year closure for the camp, with the remaining IDPs possibly transferred to a cluster of transit sites close to their areas of origin until demining operations are complete.

Zones 4 and 2 of the camp were closed on 9 November and 24 November respectively, and the 4,600 IDPs living in those areas have been transferred to Zones 0 and 1, where shelters are in better condition.

The UN continues to advocate safe, sustainable and voluntary returns upon completion of all necessary mine action interventions, noting that subjecting the residual camp population to another move and extended displacement in a transit location with poor facilities and service would be ill-advised.