‘Muhajireen Refugee Camp’ in Crow Island and they are from the Jaffna town.
On Tuesday the 2nd of March, 2010, Ali Azeez and I decided to pay a visit to the long forgotten refugees living on Crow Island in Mutwal, Colombo. Even though the refugees have been living in this abandoned school property for the last two decades, neither the Government nor any NGO have made a substantial effort to settle the 127 families; whose living conditions are more derelict than the worst shanties in Colombo. This area known as ‘The Compound’ is well secured due to the presence of the large boundary wall that surrounds it. The compound was originally used as a school but its purpose now is to house the refugees who have run out of options. Returning to Jaffna is certainly not an option that many want to explore, as many opted to stay back because they were living in Jaffna on rented properties and is now long lost. Because these refugees have opted to stay back, the Government has stopped the monthly rations worth about Rs 1200/month. The plan to resettle them in Jaffna was very off the cuff and never offered the refugees a definite resolution. All this information was released to us by Mr M. Kamaldeen, former M.M.C. of the Jaffna Municipal Council, who is acting as the spokesman for the refugees. In addition we also met some of the senior members of the refugee community like Mr. S.H. Abdul Hakkeem, Mr.N.M. Haniffa, Mr. Jinnah Saib, and Mr. M.H. Nazar, who showed us the conditions in which they live. The only thing they are now hoping for is resettlement in proper housing by building low cost flats in the same location.
Even though they have been living in Colombo for twenty years, away from their home, none can claim that leaving their hometown and settling in the capital of Sri Lanka has given them any advantage. It has been an agony with problems and difficulties following one another. The pain of living in this refugee camp was worsened when the entire compound was inundated with water when Tsunami hit the island in December 2004.
The sanitary condition is far below any humanitarian standards. There are five latrines for men and six for women. Only one bathing facility shared by both men and women. The men use it from six to eleven in the morning and the ladies from eleven onwards. These facilities accommodate about 550 people, which mean fifty people to a latrine. One can imagine the chaos and traffic in the morning hours at the latrine.
The sheds, attached to each other, contain two to three small rooms with no ventilation giving rise to very unhealthy conditions for the residents. Dust and heat lead to breathing difficulties for many of the refugees. Some have ventured to erect rooms above, converting it to an upstairs shanty dwelling. The alleyway between the sheds is so narrow and short that only small children can walk through while standing upright.
Most of the men drive three wheelers to earn their daily living while some have started to sew within their limited space; one resident was seen busy producing covers for the three wheelers. An inspiring thing amongst this population was the fact that these people were proud to claim that they earn a living and had not taken up to begging or panhandling.
The children attend the close by Government schools and we understand two of the students have entered the university to follow courses in Arts subjects. These children who are of majority born in Colombo are given ID’s that classify them as refugees from Jaffna. The government refuses to give them the status of being Colombo born Sri Lankans and continues to place them under the stigma of a displaced refugee which will only hinder any hope for the development of their future; all the while the government expects them to fend for themselves without rations because they have chosen to stay in Colombo. The sight of these children is bittersweet, content with what they are given, filled with hope, oblivious to many of their perils and difficulties that they face. We understand that the funds are restricted within the government, however the funds confiscated from the LTTE, who are the prime cause for the displacement of these people should be utilized in resettling them or at least improving their living conditions in the camps.
Alhamdulillah, we were glad to see a well maintained Masjid, Madrassa and a community shed which is equipped to wash and prepare the dead. Yesterday the community had prepared the funeral arrangements for S. Kamal Deen, age 68 and are holding constant funerals for their departed. Other community arenas that are offered include a market to service their daily needs.
The purpose of our visit on behalf of The Sailan Muslim Foundation is to make people aware of the situation of the refugees in various camps around Sri Lanka and to harness any assistance that can be rendered to the long forgotten IDPs. It is possible for these refugees to build a home in Colombo, as government have already provided flats for a fortunate few that were displaced in other areas, including Welawatte. Mutwul is but one of the camps that face these aforementioned dilemmas in Sri Lanka and live in such conditions. It is the responsibility of all of us to become well aware of these conditions and advocate to the government for a fair standard of living for these refugees.