Issue 28 - Article 16

Where there is no information: IDP vulnerability in Sri Lanka's 'uncleared' areas

November 19, 2004
Robert Muggah, Social Science Research Council/Graduate Institute of International Studies, and Danesh Jayatilaka, consultant

Despite a ceasefire agreement in February 2002 and a gradual transition from war to peace, Sri Lanka still has a significant internally displaced population. Although numbers have declined considerably in the past two years, there are still some 360,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) – including, according to UNHCR, over 80,000 in nearly 300 welfare centres in the north and east. While there have been numerous attempts to describe and analyse this population, very little is actually known about the risks and vulnerabilities facing Sri Lanka’s IDPs, in particular the 200,000 or so in parts of the country still nominally controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) – the so-called ‘uncleared’ (according to the government) or ‘liberated’ (according to the LTTE) areas.

There have been several attempts to appraise the risks and vulnerabilities facing Sri Lanka’s IDPs, including studies by the US Committee for Refugees, the Colombo-based Centre for Policy Alternatives and Oxfam-GB’s Listening to the Displaced project, as well as work by individual forced-migration analysts like Roberta Cohen, Marc Vincent and Birgitte Sorensen. The UN’s Special Representative for IDPs, Francis Deng, visited the country in 1993, and a team of specialists from OCHA issued a report in 2002. Moreover, the UNHCR has undertaken a range of demographic surveys of IDPs together with the responsible ministries, while the World Bank has launched a major socio-economic assessment of ‘vulnerable groups’ in the north and east. However, the majority of these studies and initiatives are undermined by the logistical and resource constraints typical to work in conflict and post-conflict contexts, and few, if any, have paid adequate attention to the situation of IDPs in Sri Lanka’s ‘liberated’ areas.

This article describes an initiative in 2002 to measure the protection and assistance needs of IDPs in Sri Lanka’s ‘uncleared’ areas. The project’s central goal was to expand the analytical lens in relation to assessing and ultimately strengthening inter-agency approaches to IDP protection and assistance. Over a short period, it demonstrated a capacity for generating responsive and policy-oriented analysis. By appraising protection needs in situ, the project introduced a pragmatic strategy to generate detailed information on the risks and needs facing an extraordinarily diverse and heterogeneous population. For example, the project found that existing approaches to ‘protection’ and ‘assistance’ did not meet Sphere standards, and that IDPs in so-called ‘liberated’ areas experienced differentiated access to public goods such as water, schooling and health services. It also detected considerable confusion in relation to ‘programmatic’ responses to IDP ‘protection’ and ‘assistance’: interventions appeared in some cases to have disempowered IDPs and fuelled mistrust and resistance to collaboration with humanitarian agencies.

Analysing displacement

The UN’s Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement ‘identify the rights and guarantees relevant to the protection of persons from forced displacement’. The 30 principles reflect progressive thinking in international human rights law, humanitarian law and refugee law, and offer normative and prescriptive guidelines for intervention. Although there is dispute over when displacement actually ends, and over the responsibilities associated with the provision of IDPs’ rights, there is consensus that the displaced face a range of risks and vulnerabilities that demand attention. But what are these risks? How are they actually experienced? Although Sri Lanka has seen numerous attempts to apply the Guiding Principles in practice, as an analytical tool they are unwieldy, and efforts to operationalise the Principles as a toolkit for research have been only partially successful.

Among the many challenges facing those responding to internal displacement is the question of information: despite the consensus on the rights and entitlements of internally displaced people, little is actually known about the types and scale of vulnerability they face. Surveillance capacities in areas affected by war-induced displacement are often limited, if they exist at all, and local resources are rarely up to gathering the kind of data required. In the rare cases where action research is undertaken, it is often case- or sector-specific, or in the form of one-off appraisals. The full dimensions of displacement are rarely assessed holistically.

Designing an IDP vulnerability assessment tool

Against this background, the Brookings Institute Project on IDPs commissioned the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA) in Sri Lanka to undertake a low-cost and focused assessment of the risks and vulnerabilities facing IDPs. The vulnerability assessment study, which was part of a larger IDP protection and assistance programme implemented by CHA, was conducted over 12 months, between January and December 2002. Its objective was to generate valid and appropriate data on IDPs residing outside government areas. Eight districts were targeted in Sri Lanka’s north and east: Trincomalee, Vavuniya, Killinochchi, Mullativue, Jaffna, Mannar, Batticaloa and Ampara. At the time of the study, these IDPs comprised a quarter of the country’s total caseload.

The assessment tool was developed in consultation with representatives from the humanitarian and development sector, including UN agencies (e.g. WFP, UNICEF and UNHCR), the Sri Lankan government, Colombo University, independent specialists and international NGOs (e.g. Save the Children-Norway, Action Contre la Faim and Helvitas). Two additional observers were also involved from Oxfam-GB and Save the Children-UK.

The approach envisaged departed from the Guiding Principles in that it used just eight key variables (as opposed to 30 principles), devised by a ‘project formulation group’. These variables covered core elements of IDP protection and assistance: health, food, education, water, sanitation, psychosocial health, shelter and safe movement. Each variable included quantitative and qualitative indicators thought to be important in the Sri Lankan context. These indicators were intended to be illustrative, rather than exhaustive.

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Officials from the North East Provincial Council (NEPC) were seconded to the project and deployed to each district in order to collect data on a monthly basis. The data was then analysed by a Colombo-based advisory group. In under 12 months, some 250 representatives of local NGOs, community-based organisations (CBOs) and civil servants involved with IDP protection and assistance-related work in the uncleared areas were trained in research and data collection methods.

Each of the eight assessment sectors included a data-gathering tool and a corresponding training module. The NEPC and Government Agents from the project districts provided coordination and offered recommendations as to participant selection. The LTTE was represented by the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO), which was chiefly responsible for organising training workshops and other field arrangements. Other non-governmental agencies such as FORUT, Helvitas, SEDEC and Caritas Sri Lanka and ‘District Coordinators’ from the CHA provided logistical support and training resources, and the NEPC oversaw and directed the data-gathering team.

Some reflections

The project was extremely ambitious, and a number of key obstacles prevented the smooth and effective generation of data and dissemination anticipated at the project’s inception. The skills and capacities of the locally recruited participants were inadequate to appraise the primary data, and in Sri Lanka, as elsewhere, many humanitarian agencies are themselves unable to invest enough time and resources to carefully consider ‘findings’ from the field. Despite notable exceptions, the emphasis on delivery often militates against reflection and empirical analysis. Without adequate support among senior managers, whatever evidence is ultimately marshalled often goes unnoticed. Although the project devoted considerable energy to analysis by creating the advisory group in Colombo, the full body found it difficult to meet on a regular basis. Indeed, a strong case could be made for a smaller, more focused consultative group, comprising those who are most supportive of the project, in order to increase the transmission and dissemination of information.

But the fact remains that accurate information is vital for informed policy-making. The project demonstrated a capacity to generate voluminous data over a short period, particularly in areas where data is hard to come by. But it was also the case that, despite a significant investment of time and energy in training, the ‘data collectors’ were not always equipped to carry out the assessment to completion. Ultimately, the generation of information is a necessary, but insufficient, condition for progressive policy development in relation to protecting and assisting IDPs. Analysis and dissemination are crucial, if frequently overlooked, elements of any information management effort.

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Good information is vital for the articulation of good policy and programming, especially for displaced populations in inaccessible areas. Good policy is, of course, contingent on another intervening variable – political will.

The Guiding Principles offer a useful normative platform for understanding the risks and vulnerabilities facing IDPs, as well as their responses to them. This project created a framework to appraise protection and assistance needs in situ. In this way, it introduced a novel, cost-effective and pragmatic strategy to generate detailed information on specific populations over a relatively short period. But effective information management requires more than a capacity to frame the issue. It also demands considerable attention to ‘downstream’ activities, namely analysis and dissemination. Agencies need to devise creative mechanisms to enable them to appraise the realities of IDPs in conflict and post-conflict societies. This project offers a novel template to at least begin asking the right questions.

Robert Muggah is a Global Security Co-operation Fellow with the Social Science Research Council, New York. He is also project manager of the Small Arms Survey at the Graduate Institute of International Studies, and a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford. Danesh Jayatilakais a consultant based in Colombo. He has worked for Care-USA, GTZ and a number of humanitarian agencies in Sri Lanka.

References and further reading

Rupasingha Ariyarantne, ‘Sri Lanka: On the Edge of Displacement’, Forced Migration Review, no. 17, May 2003,

Cathrine Brun, ‘Forced Migrants, Refugees or IDPs? Consequences of Labelling in Identity Formation and Entitlements in Sri Lanka’, Acta Geographica, Series B No. 2 (Trondheim: Norwegian University of Science and Technology, 2003).

Cathrine Brun, ‘Newcomers and Hosts: Muslim Internally Displaced Persons and Their Hosts in Sri Lanka – Challenges for Social Research’, paper, Norwegian University of Science and Technology Conference on Recovery and Development after Conflict and Disaster, April 2000.

Michael Cernea and Christopher McDowell, ‘Reconstructing Resettlers and Refugees Livelihoods’, in Cernea and McDowell (eds), Risks and Reconstruction: Experiences of Resettlers and Refugees (Washington DC: World Bank, 2000).

CHA, A Toolkit for Dissemination, Advocacy and Analysis: What You Can Do (Colombo: CHA, 2001).

Francis Deng and Roberta Cohen (eds), The Forsaken People: Case Studies of the Internally Displaced (Washington DC: Brookings Institute, 1998).

Danesh Jayatilaka, A Report for the Brookings-SAIS Project on Internal Displacement (Colombo: CHA, 2003).

UN, Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, Doc E/CN.4/1998/53/Add.2, 11 February 1998.

OCHA, The Situation of IDPs in Sri Lanka: Report of a Mission by the Internal Displacement Unit, April 2002.

Marc Vincent and Birgitte Sorensen, Caught Between Borders: Response Strategies of the Internally Displaced (London: Pluto Press, 2001).


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