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'Canada offered $7.1 m for Lankan refugees'

By Ajit Jain
August 18, 2009 22:16 IST
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Canadian Conservative Member of Parliament Deepak Obhrai was in Sri Lanka July 5 to 7 on an official visit. The lawmaker discusses his Sri Lanka visit with Ajit Jain.

The lawmaker, who is also the parliamentary secretary to the foreign affairs minister, visited refugee camps in Sri Lanka to monitor Canadian aid to the Tamil refugees. His mandate also was to locate Canadians, if there were any, in the IDP [Internally Displaced Persons] camps there and get them back to Canada.

Speaking to Rediff India Abroad from Phuket, Thailand, where he was attending the Association of South East Asian Nations foreign ministers' conference, Obhrai said he met one Canadian in a refugee camp and "we are trying to get him back."

They also found another Canadian, whose name he wouldn't release, who's in a separate refugee camp with about 1,000 enemy combatants. 

Bandula Rajsekera, Sri Lanka's consul general in Toronto, called that Canadian a terrorist.

"We can't make any distinction between this Canadian or others who are in the separate camp," Rajsekara said. Obhrao said Canada is "keen to provide him [the captured Canadian] with consular assistance and have him released soon."

What was the main objective of your Sri Lanka visit?

Canada has contributed heavily towards [alleviating] the refugee crisis, to look at the IDP camps, what has the Sri Lankan government done so far towards repatriation of these refugees back to their homes. Most importantly, I also wanted to find out what the Sri Lankan government is doing to reach out to the Tamil community for the reconciliation process.

What has Canada done to help refugees there?

Canada has been engaged with Sri Lanka for a long time. Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon has already announced $7.1 million for helping refugees. So, it was important to see what was happening on the ground, whether aid was reaching the refugees or not. The Sri Lankan government gave me permission to visit the IDP camps, which I did. I talked to the local authorities, military and civilians. 

I brought up an issue with the Sri Lankan authorities that the Tamil Diaspora [in Canada] would like to contribute towards the resettlement of the refugees and rebuilding of the areas heavily damaged during the [government versus Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] conflict. 

They said they would welcome that and they would set up some mechanism to ensure that the process of reconstruction of those areas could commence soon. 

I also met one Canadian who's in a refugee camp. We are trying to get him back home. I also discussed the status of another Canadian. The authorities in Sri Lanka consider him to be an enemy combatant because he was fighting for the LTTE and so he's in a different camp with other LTTE fighters. I suggested that consular services be provided to him. Our officials will follow up. I saw what work the Sri Lankan government is doing to help the refugees. I have earlier visited IDP camps in Dar es Salaam [in Tanzania], and in Kenya and elsewhere. And based on my visits to IDP camps, I would say whatever you may do, it is still an IDP camp. The sooner these people go home the better it is.

How did the Sri Lankan authorities respond to your suggestion?

They said yes but at the same time, they explained that there are lots of heavily mined areas and so there was danger for them to allow people to go back unless those areas are de-mined. An Indian team of experts with de-mining equipment is arriving in Sri Lanka to help the government. 

 Did you meet the Sri Lankan foreign minister?

Yes, I had a meeting with Foreign Minister Chandrasekera Rohitha Bandara Bogollagama and also Foreign Secretary Dr Palitha Kohona. I met Rishard Badurdeen, minister for rehabilitation, who himself was displaced by the LTTE and was in the refugee camps. He also discussed the rehabilitation process, the repatriation process. During my discussion with Foreign Minister Bogollagama, the most important issue was how the government of Sri Lanka would now reach out to the Tamil community for the reconciliation process.

One thing he said  -- to which I tend to agree  -- is that before all this, war was on and so they were preoccupied with the war. Now that the war has ended, the situation has been created for the Sri Lankan government to work for the peace process. In many areas that the government was not able to do anything, now is the time for them to reach out to Tamils in those areas. The foreign minister assured me that they would do that.

Any concrete signs that the Sri Lankan government is moving in that direction?

They have made a statement and we will see how that process moves forward.  I was informed by the Sri Lankan foreign minister that they had had meetings with the Tamil Diaspora as well, including people from Canada. 

Did you meet any Tamil Canadians in Sri Lanka?

I am going to be very candid. The issue is not with Canadian-Tamils.  The issue is with Tamils in Sri Lanka. The ultimate political solution has to come in consultation with the Tamils in Sri Lanka and not Tamils in Canada. While I appreciate concerns of Tamils living in Canada and their willingness to contribute towards rebuilding of Tamil areas, I do not personally believe that Sri Lankans who live outside the country are the ones who will instrumental in direct political settlement in Sri Lanka. 

I went to the IDP camps. I met one Canadian Tamil and we are trying to get him out quickly. We asked the camp commanders whether there were other Canadian in those camps.   I would say they [the refugees in the camps] are people who were just caught in the fighting. I talked to the officials. Most important for us is those people should go home. I also visited an hospital that's being run by Indians. I talked to the doctors there who explained to me what was happening and what kind of treatment they were taking, etc. 

You were not able to meet a Canadian, who Sri Lanka calls an enemy combatant.

Yes, I was not able to meet with him. He's in a different camp where they have around 1,000 combatants. Because he's a Canadian we will, of course, seek consular access with him. We are asking for his release. We will continue to show our interest in him because he's a Canadian. Canada is in favour of Sri Lanka allowing the refugees to go back to their homes as soon as possible.

Yes, I have suggested that these people should be allowed to leave the IDP camps, allowed to go home. Of course, those areas are heavily mined. I did indicate to  the Sri Lankan authorities that there's a desire on the part of Sri Lankans in Canada to be more active but I would clearly state their involvement cannot be in the political process. I don't think that's the right thing to do. They live in Canada.  We have large Diaspora from other countries living in Canada and are doing very well — the Chinese, Indians, Bangladeshis and others. They are promoting trade and strengthening cultural ties. I expect Tamil Canadians should do the same —the political process is a Sri Lankan issue, which the people of Sri Lanka will decide.

But Foreign Affairs Minister Cannon has made repeated statements in support of the human rights of the Tamil people. The foreign media hasn't been allowed inside Sri Lanka…

We discussed the reconciliation process and the Sri Lankan politicians said that process is going to go ahead. The protection of all citizens is the responsibility of the government — and that includes Tamils, Muslim and Sinhalese, all the people. They were quite receptive to the idea that it was their responsibility. 

Your advice for Tamils in Canada who are concerned about the safety of their family members in Sri Lanka.

We have asked the Sri Lankan government to release the names of all those people who are in the refugee camps. I can tell Tamil Canadians that we tried our best but we couldn't find any other Canadians there except those two people. I must make it clear we have to engage with the government of Sri Lanka. We have historical ties with the Sri Lankan government. I see the role of Tamils living overseas in the reconstruction process.

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Ajit Jain