to go but home
By Chris Kamalendran
The Punthottam refugee camp, as it is popularly known among the
people of Vavuniya, provides food and shelter for over 5,000 displaced
persons making it one of the biggest camps for those forced to flee
their homes due to the ethnic conflict.
Situated in the Vavuniya district, it has been in existence for
the past 10 years. The camp, located on the property of the College
of Education, at one time accommodated over 10,000.
With the ceasefire
agreement coming into effect nearly 20 months ago, a large number
of displaced people have returned to their homes in the uncleared
But even with normalcy prevailing several others in the refugee
camps do not want to move away, perhaps due to past experiences
and other factors.
the belief that most of those living in refugee camps have no alternative
but to remain there, a majority have the option of getting back
to their villages. But they opt to stay.
This is partly
because of the facilities they have at the camp. The government
provides them with dry rations, free electricity and water as well
as security. In addition they can go to work during the day and
earn some money.
originally from Kandy was displaced during the 1983 riots and later
moved to Mullaitivu. Displaced once again during the Jayasikuru
Operation in 1996, he is one of those who prefers to remain in the
'After I moved
into the camp I decided to find some extra money as the dry rations
supplied were not sufficient. I first started working as a labourer
on a daily wage. Then with my little savings, I started buying and
selling small items required by the refugees,' Navaratnam says.
has put up a small shop opposite the camp where he sells various
items required by the refugees. He is also a wholesale buyer of
vegetables, which he gets from nearby villages. He takes the vegetables
to Vavuniya town for sale.
Navaratnam says that had he returned to Mullaitivu he would have
had to work much harder to make a living.
I am living in a makeshift camp, my wife and four children have
a comparatively comfortable life. So why should I return and struggle
when it is not so difficult to earn money here?’ Navaratnam
asks, adding that he would prefer to move out later on.
He's not the
only one. There are others who are employed as waiters, farm helpers,
labourers, domestic aides and mechanics in and around Vavuniya town.
Most feel comfortable and do not want to take the risk of returning
to their original homes and struggling to start a new life.
Though a majority
of the refugees are trying to make an honest living, there are others
who misuse the facility by involving themselves in illegal activities
like the brewing of illicit liquour and prostitution.
It costs the
government Rs. 10 million per month to maintain these camps and
every three months an additional Rs. 5 million is needed to pay
the electricity and water bills, says District Secretary for Vavuniya,
He said the
refugees did not want to move out of the camp because of the free
dry rations and basic facilities. ‘Some of them have even
put up temporary wattle and daub houses,’ Mr. Ganesh says.
He said that
the government had decided to resettle displaced persons in cleared
areas under a plan drawn up with the United Nations High Commissioner
for Refugees (UNHCR).
But a majority
of them are still reluctant to leave the camps. ‘We have even
found the necessary land to be distributed among the people,’
Mr. Ganesh says that the money spent on the refugees every month
could be spent to resettle the refugees and allocate them land,
if there was support from the refugees themselves.
Living in a
camp led to other social problems like children not going to school
and loitering on the roads. ‘It is up to the government to
take a serious view of this problem and decide who should be resettled,’
he said. But getting action at Punthottam is easier said than done.