Nowhere 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 areas.
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.

Contrary to 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.

S. Navaratnam, 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 camp.

'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.

Today Navaratnam 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.

‘Though 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, K. Ganesh.

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,’ he says.
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.

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