Almost three years after the Sri Lankan government looked into resettling up to 100,000 Muslims displaced from the country’s north during the 1983-2009 civil war, thousands of Muslim families still find themselves in limbo, without the means to return to their former homes.
Despite a time lapse of almost 25 years, Abdul Malik still remembers the announcement Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE - separatist rebels fighting for an independent ethnic Tamil state in the north) made on 29 October 1990: All Muslims in Jaffna Peninsula, which included the capital of the war-hit Northern Province (Jaffna), had 24 hours to leave or face forced expulsion and death.
“It was horrible, there were only three [Muslim] families living in the area where we lived. We just left the place we knew as home overnight,” said Malik who is now a religious `Moulavi’ leader at a small mosque in the northwestern district of Puttalam, where most Muslim families relocated.
Why were they expelled?
While the country’s Muslims from the Tamil-dominated north speak Tamil, they are not generally considered ethnically Tamil by Sri Lankans - of all ethnicities - on account of their religion (most Sri Lankan Tamils are Hindus or Christians). The expulsion of Muslims, who made up 5 percent of Northern Province’s population before 1990, followed the emergence of a new national Muslim political party, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress. LTTE leaders feared the new party undermined LTTE’s goal of a mono-ethnic Tamil state. The few Sinhalese who used to live in Jaffna city were forced out years before Muslims.
LTTE, which at the time controlled most of Jaffna Peninsula, made sure fleeing Muslims did not take with them any household items, furniture, or even land deeds in some cases. Each person could not carry more than US$2.25.
The 30 October 1990 mass flight was the largest forced eviction of Muslims during Sri Lanka’s civil war. Researchers estimate close to 75,000 Muslims were forced from their homes during the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Where are they now?
Most resettled in northwestern Puttalam District, which already had a sizeable Muslim population. Their number has now swelled to 250,000, according to Colombo-based NGO Law and Society Trust, as well as the Citizens Commission on the Expulsion of Muslims from Northern Province by LTTE in October 1990.
Formed in 2008 the Commission is a collective of Muslim civic groups campaigning for the rights of displaced Muslims.
Almost a quarter of a century after their flight and 44 months since the end of the conflict in May 2009, most are still living in what was intended to be temporary relocation sites.
“They really don’t want to go back if there is no guarantee of jobs and housing. So far there is no such guarantee,” said Abdul Matheen, a community leader working with displaced Muslims in Puttalam.
Researchers and experts told IRIN that resettling people displaced for years was more complicated than resettling those displaced for a short time.
“They tend to take longer to return and will attempt to rebuild their houses and livelihoods before shifting their entire family [back to their original villages],” said Mirak Raheem, a researcher with local NGO Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA).
Raheem, who specializes in displacement, told IRIN that most displaced Muslims were wary of leaving their current residence because they lacked the means to resettle. “They have lived for so long in displacement and tried to build a life there, they may opt to settle there. This is especially true for the generation borne and brought up in displacement.”
What support are they getting?
There are no current government or NGO-supported programmes to facilitate resettlement of displaced Muslims.
The November 2011 report by the government-appointed Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), which looked into the conduct of the war, noted “the treatment given to the Muslim community of the Northern Province has led them to believe that they are at the bottom of the list of priorities of the government, INGOs [international NGOs] and NGOs and the donor community”.
Assistance targeting displaced Muslims has been scant; one rare case is the US$34 million World Bank funded Puttalam Housing Project, completed in 2011,which provided 4,460 houses to internally displaced persons (IDPs).
Have Muslims registered to return?
In mid-2010 almost all displaced Muslims registered to return in order to qualify for six months of government-supported rations for returnees, according to Farzana Haniffa, editor of The Quest for Redemption: The Story of the Northern Muslims.
But few actually made the return journey.
Haniffa, who teaches at Colombo University, told IRIN it was up to the government to support the return of Muslim IDPs, most of whom have a closer linguistic affinity to the north. “They speak Tamil, while in Puttalam the working language is Sinhalese.”
Are there any local tensions?
In Puttalam, most displaced Muslims continue living off odd-jobs. Decent jobs, especially for youths, are scarce. Malik told IRIN that even after almost 25 years in Puttalam, he still felt alien. “I know that we are still looked upon as second class citizens here.”
Matheen, the Puttalam community worker, said dwindling water and land resources, as well as scant jobs, have heightened tensions between Puttalam’s native population and Muslim arrivals.
CPA’s Raheem told IRIN that if there were enough jobs, schooling, housing and health care in the north, many of the displaced would return. But jobs and housing reconstruction have lagged far behind needs in the former northern war zone.
What about reintegration and reconciliation?
The LLRC report acknowledged Muslims IDPs have been living in “dire conditions” for more than two decades and have had trouble integrating. Muslim IDPs interviewed by the Commission reported not being recognized as IDPs. In addition, they said they were “short-changed” in peace negotiations: their request to participate as an independent delegation was not honoured.
The Commission concluded that Muslims IDPs remain one of the “key post-conflict challenges” with a “significant impact” on reconciliation prospects.
“The Commission is of the view that durable solutions should be found to address this long-standing IDP issue concerning the Muslims evicted from the North, which contains the seeds of disharmony and dissension if it remains unaddressed.”