Return of lands pivotal for resettling IDPs: National Policy

The Government has adopted a national policy on the war-displaced, which acknowledges that one of the major obstacles to providing them with durable solutions for a return to normal life, is occupation of land by the military and police.

The policy calls on the Ministry of Defence to coordinate with the Ministry of Law and Order, to accurately map out all land that is or was owned, claimed or used by civilians, and is currently occupied by any of the three forces or police. These should be returned to civilian use and ownership urgently, unless the State determines that it is required for public purpose, it holds.

Such purpose–be it national security or development–should be carefully scrutinised, including to ascertain whether no alternative land could be found. This would also mean releasing land used by the military for non-security reasons, including agricultural production, tourist enterprises or recreation.

The ‘National Policy on Durable Solutions for Conflict-Affected Displacement’, written over the past year by the Ministry of Rehabilitation and Resettlement, has been approved by Cabinet. Other impediments to resettling people include lands being claimed by Government departments and authorities, as well as conflicting land claims and disputes, it says.

At the start of drafting, a majority of internally displaced persons (IDPs) had returned to their places of origin. But there were still over 40,000 in the country and more than 100,000 Sri Lankan refugees in India and elsewhere. There were also others who were resettled but, continuing to struggle.

In some cases, Government departments and authorities have demarcated lands for State use, that were formerly owned and occupied by persons now in displacement, without consulting district and provincial officials or adequately informing those affected. Among them are the Forest, Wildlife and Archaeology Departments, and the Mahaweli and Urban Development Authorities. The policy calls for a transparent review and, where possible, for the restoration of such lands to their rightful owners.

There are lingering cases in the North and East of land claims and disputes, especially those relating to State land, that need to be resolved. The policy urges immediate measures to resolve them, “so as to avoid their festering and exacerbation, particularly those that are between communities”.

The policy also highlights the plight of IDPs and refugees who never owned land or, who were made landless by the conflict. They need a solution, it says, particularly if the last remaining welfare centres are to be closed down. There are around 3,000 IDPs in camps in the Jaffna District. Landlessness also affects persons currently occupying land of displaced persons or, encroaching on State land and can be legally evicted.

Decisions and actions need to be taken to address problems of refugees attempting to return. This includes 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 returnees will be eligible to receive the same types of assistance 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 programmes are conducted without undue delays.

The Government is encouraged to set out a comprehensive policy for reparations relating to loss, including compensation for persons killed, missing or disabled, and for economic losses, ensuring recognition of the issue of displacement and its impact. Eligibility for such reparations or compensation packages should include persons who worked in conflict-affected areas.

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