Sri Lanka’s National Policy Document on Rehabilitation Recommends Comprehensive Legal Framework

COLOMBO: The Sri Lankan Ministry of Rehabilitation has recommended, through its National Policy Document, the enactment of a comprehensive law that addresses all displaced persons and communities in order to be prepared for any eventuality in the future.

The comprehensive policy document has recommended recognition and registration of conflict-affected Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs); return of lands taken by the military and the government; provision of facilities to refugee returnees from abroad; provision of livelihood and income generating opportunities; coordination of various line ministries and constant monitoring of the rehabilitation schemes.

While registration is not constitutive of being an IDP, and de-registration or the absence of registration does not lead to loss of rights and entitlements set out under this policy, for the specific purpose of receiving resettlement assistance, persons must register as IDPs on or before May 1, 2017,the policy document dated June 22, said.

For persons who wish to return to areas not yet released, the deadline for registration will be a year from the date the land is officially released. Further, the May 2017 deadline does not apply to refugee returnees who have an year to apply for resettlement assistance from the date of their return to Sri Lanka.

Release of Lands

The document urged the Ministry of Defense in coordination with the Ministry of Law and Order to ensure that an accurate mapping is made of all land that is or was owned, claimed or used by civilians and is currently occupied by any of the three security forces – army, navy or air force – or by the police.

All such lands, particularly private land, should be released and returned to civilian use and ownership urgently, unless the government determines that it is required for public purpose. This purpose, be it national security or development, should be carefully scrutinized, including to ascertain that no alternative land can be found for the stated purpose.
This also means releasing land that is being used by the military for purposes not related to security including,  but not limited to, agricultural production, tourist enterprises, or recreation. It must also be ensured that land that is released is made safe from unexploded ordnance or other sources of danger, and returned in a state that can be used by former residents and owners for their residential or economic pursuits.

Land claimed by non-military government departments and authorities, which were formerly owned and occupied by persons now in displacement, should be returned.

Where government departments or authorities have formalized their claim to land belonging to displaced persons, these cases need to be reviewed in consultation with district-level authorities in a transparent manner, and where possible, the land must be restored to the rightful owner.

Land Acquired for Public Purposes

In exceptional cases if a displaced person’s land and property is required for public purposes, then this land will be acquired as per the existing law. Those affected must be accorded their full rights in accordance with Sri Lankan law and national standards. The owners/former occupants of that land and property must receive acceptable alternative land, and/or appropriate compensation for their lost land/property.

For persons who have to relocate, needs such as shelter and livelihood should be met, access to essential services should be provided and social integration issues should be addressed.

Land Disputes And The Landless

In addition to land problems, there are a number of lingering cases in the Northern and Eastern Provinces  that need to be resolved, especially those relating to state land. A key step is to ensure public awareness about land rights and any state process to address land claims. Immediate measures are required to resolve these protracted land disputes so as to avoid their festering and exacerbation, particularly those that are between communities. This issue needs to be taken up by appropriate ministries including Justice and Land with the advice of district and provincial level actors.

Displaced persons and refugee returnees who never owned land, or who were made landless as a result of the conflict, need a solution, particularly if the last remaining Welfare Centers (refugee camps) are to be closed down. Landlessness also affects persons who are currently occupying land of displaced persons or encroaching state land and can be legally evicted.

As in other parts of the country, programs addressing landlessness should be carried out in the North and East in a comprehensive manner and in consultation with the Ministry of Land. Given the policy of the previous Rajapaksa government of not recognizing specific displaced populations and the continuing problems of identifying such populations, it is imperative that the Ministry of Rehabilitation undertakes action to ensure that populations/families who continue to be displaced are recognized and registered.

Return of Refugees From Abroad

Policy decisions and actions need to be taken to address key problems faced by refugees who are attempting to return. This includes, inter alia, outreach and information campaigns to refugee communities abroad, facilitating the provision of key identification documents, assisting refugees to transport goods and personal possessions acquired in exile, ensuring that refugee returnees will be eligible to receive the same types of assistance that are available to IDP returnees, ensuring that educational and professional qualifications earned abroad are recognized where applicable including for school admission requirements, and that security screening programs are conducted without undue delays.

Livelihood And Income Generation

Targeted assistance programs, including for livelihoods and for social integration, need to be developed. Refugee returns are likely to continue over a period of several years and will extend beyond the period targeted for ending internal displacement. While the Ministry of Resettlement will play an active role in this task, including in ensuring more effective monitoring of refugee returnees at the district level, it will require the assistance of other ministries including Education, Health and Social Services amongst others.

Displacement forced many to lose their jobs, livelihoods and livelihood assets and they will only attain a durable solution once families are able to maintain a secure income. It is necessary for the government to introduce programs to enable returnees to restart their former livelihoods, or to receive training to take up new fields of employment. This is a particular challenge for women-headed households, persons disabled by the conflict, former combatants and youth who are now approaching adulthood.

It is necessary for the Government to review existing programs in order to devise projects that will address gaps and failings, the police document said.