Years after fighting ended in Sri Lanka - up to more than 20 years for some - tens of thousands of people are still unable to return to their homes, a situation researchers say is unlikely to change soon.
A recent report by the Colombo-based advocacy body Centre for Policy Alternatives in 2013 estimated that at least 94,400 “protracted” internally displaced persons (IDPs) who come mostly from minority Tamil and Muslim communities displaced by conflict, have not been able to return in a “meaningful” and “sustainable” way to their home villages.
Report author Mirak Raheem said the number may be higher due to the complex nature of protracted displacement where family members born in displacement have swelled the numbers of original IDPs.
The northwestern district of Puttalam is home to some 75,000 Muslims forced out of the Northern Province in 1990 by ethnic Tamil rebels who feared their rising political power.
Despite their large numbers, long-term IDPs - and their families - have received less attention than more recent displacements, Raheem said.
“There were and still are strong perceptions that the issue of protracted IDPs was not urgent and that they had found a solution… through settling in their place of displacement,” he told IRIN.
According to Raheem and researchers who worked on a report about the expulsion of Muslims published in November 2011, despite years of living with host communities, protracted IDPs still find themselves marginalized and bereft of assistance.
“Most of us still find it difficult to get a proper job, a proper government document, even 25 years since coming here,” said Abdul Matheen, a community leader working with Muslim IDPs in Puttalam. He fled his native Jaffna in October 1990.
In the eastern town of Valechchenei, Batticaloa District, Nahoor Lebbe Subair, a 36-year-old day labourer, said he struggles to provide for his family of six, including four school-aged children.
Displaced from his village, Vakaneri, in 1990 - just 4km from where he now lives - Subair said he and 25 other families cannot return because of lack of infrastructure back home.
“There is no water, schools or electricity there. Here we eat once to twice daily. Sometimes we just go hungry,” Subair said. He makes US$4-$4.50 on days he can find work, but says he needs $4.50 for food alone. To make ends meet he has borrowed heavily from relatives and neighbours.
“The only collateral we have is trust,” he said.
The nearby village of Jabbar Thidaval (Vakaneri Division) is largely empty of the 1,500 families (Tamils and Muslims) who fled violence in the late 1990s.
Former resident Islama Lebbe Mohamed Musthafa, 50, told IRIN residents’ land deeds were not honoured.
“We went back in 2002 and by 2004 had eviction notices on our doors.” Two families have unofficially resettled.
Piencia Charles, the top government official in Batticaloa District, which includes the above villages, told IRIN she has instructed village level officials to collect all relevant data on the displaced who are still unable to return.
She acknowledged there have been “complications” in recognizing returnees’ land deeds. “Some don’t have deeds, but have voter registrations. In other cases there is a deed, but someone else is living on the land and registered as a voter,” Charles said.
“Once we collect the data [on the displaced], maybe by early next year, then we will decide what we can do to resettle these people. We might have to set up a special land unit to [examine and settle disagreements over] the deeds and other documentation,” she added.
Government officials in Northern Province said there are no “special” plans for protracted IDPs, but that anyone returning to their villages can apply for housing and other assistance once they prove displacement, said Rupvathi Ketheeswaran, the top government official in the northern district of Kilinochchi.
Up until late 2012 IDPs received $200 worth of supplies when they returned to their villages. This has been discontinued, since officially there are no more IDPs. For housing, the maximum grant financed by the Indian government is 550,000 rupees ($4,200) for full construction and Rs 225,000 for repair ($1,700).
With donor funding in the north and northeast dwindling, Raheem said, the situation for those like Subair may worsen.
“Donor financial support has played a crucial role in humanitarian work and now it will be incumbent on the government to fill the gap.”
Three successive appeals by the UN and Sri Lankan government for reconstruction work in the former conflict zone have run into shortfalls of over $430 million since 2010. The next appeal is expected in early 2014.
A survey by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in June conducted in six northern districts found that over a quarter of the 990 families interviewed said they were still not able to access their own land, primarily due to military occupation, a grievance the military has questioned.
“The Armed Forces are very sensitive to the issue of land as we understand very clearly that it is a matter that affects the population sentiments. We will not hold on to any land that is not required to safeguard national security interests,” military spokesperson Ruwan Wanigasooriya wrote in a recent note sent to journalists.
UNHCR also reported 32 percent of surveyed people living in their pre-war homes, 57 percent in transitional or emergency shelters, while the remainder were with host families.
Report author Raheem said the government can ease difficulties for the still-displaced by streamlining the issuance of new legal documents, to help them prove land ownership, for example.
The national government maintains there are no longer any IDPs since the country’s largest IDP camp closed in September 2012, a claim community workers - and the 1983-2009 war-affected themselves - strongly dispute.
“It’s a lie. Who are we?” asked Subair, speaking from Valechchenei.