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Journalists are not officially permitted into the camps, but TIME obtained firsthand information about them from organizations alarmed by the internment of civilians, a practice that violates internationally accepted conventions on the rules of war. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Human Rights Watch and several other local and international groups have been pushing Sri Lankan authorities for months to open up access. On Jan. 10, the Sri Lankan government instead turned several of the camps into "high-security zones," off limits to everyone except the U.N. and the Red Cross. A recently disclosed proposal to set up "welfare villages" where up to 200,000 IDPs could be kept for as long as three years was condemned by human-rights groups and opposition leaders; but this kind of treatment is a reality for the 13,000 people already in the camps. A Jan. 21 memo by UNHCR states that the restrictions on movement in these camps do not meet humanitarian standards, so the agency is trying to negotiate with the government to improve conditions. Neither the U.N. nor other groups want to help run the internment camps, but they feel they have little choice. "It's a service that has to be done," says a humanitarian official. "If we don't do it, then the people suffer."
They are already suffering; the long war has seen to that. "When the dust settles, we may see countless victims and a terrible humanitarian situation," says Jacques de Maio, head of Red Cross operations for South Asia. Hospitals, ambulances and even the so-called safe zones set up so civilians can escape the fighting have been hit. The government insists that it is doing everything possible to protect civilians and blames the LTTE for using civilians as human shields. But international observers are worried. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a joint statement Feb. 3 with the British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, expressing "serious concern about the deteriorating humanitarian situation in northern Sri Lanka" and calling on both sides to allow civilians to leave the front lines.
But if they leave, what will happen to them? The fate of Sri Lanka's IDPs is the central political issue that will face the nation when the army claims victory. "It's how the whole world will look at the country," says an official with an international aid agency. In the best case, the camps, under the monitoring eye of U.N. agencies, will be used as holding stations where the army can weed out any LTTE fighters who remain in hiding, before allowing civilians to return to the Vanni to rebuild the north. "In the worst-case scenario, they establish concentration camps for Tamils," the official says. There have been no reports of mass killings, but aid groups and human-rights workers say that they are troubled by reports of disappearances and that they cannot monitor the safety of detainees without full access to them.
Locked In--and Out