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Canadians speak out against humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka

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Canadians Concerned about Sri Lanka (CCSL) came to the steps of the Sri Lankan Consulate in Toronto Saturday to express their deep concern to the government of Sri Lanka, to the government of Canada and to the general public about the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka.

Formed in July, CCSL  is a broad coalition of community, labour and academics who came together in response to the humanitarian crisis in that country, after a civil war left thousands of Tamils locked away in detention camps.  

“Many Tamil Canadians didn’t know what was happening to their family members,” said John Cartwright, a member of CCSL and president of the Toronto & York Region Labour Council. “And we could not in good conscience allow our Tamil Canadian neighbours to stand alone, that we must add our voices in asking for just peace in Sri Lanka.”

The situation in Sri Lanka violates international norms and conduct. At the end of the civil war, civilians weren’t allowed to return to their homes. Instead, they were placed in detention camps. Even though it’s been reported that the number of detainees in the camps is decreasing, Tamil Canadians are still having trouble reaching their relatives.

The numbers of deaths is estimated to be in the tens of thousands.

Even though it’s been reported that the Sri Lankan government may try to accelerate opening up the refugee camps, it’s still unknown where the refugees will be allowed to settle or what they’ll find if they return to their homes.

“We have work to do to remind our government that Canada stands for freedom, democracy and recognizing the rights of all people,” said Bob Rae, Liberal MP and Foreign Affairs critic. “We need to find ways of having the United Nations and Canada there watching and monitoring.”

Rae said the truth needs to be found, to find out what’s happened over the last year and make sure “those who have committed injustice and those who have done wrong are brought to punishment.”

We also need reconciliation, to find a long term way in which all the people of Sri Lanka can live together in peace and in freedom, said Rae, adding “it’s a matter of recognizing that Sri Lanka is a country that includes people of all backgrounds, religions, languages.”

Rae looks forward to one day returning to Sri Lanka – and not just to the airport at Colombo, where in June he was halted by border guards, refused entry and forced to sleep at the airport before being ejected from the country.

“It’s practically impossible to imagine the emotions that so many of you were feeling as you knew that your own family members were being attacked and then herded into these inhumane camps where no one was even allowed to go in to see what was going on,” said NDP leader Jack Layton, as he addressed the largely Tamil Canadian crowd that assembled on St. Clair Avenue West in front of the Sri Lankan Consulate.

“It was very, very painful.”

When Layton met with Tamil Canadians in the spring and heard their personal stories, he took their accounts back to the House of Commons during the Sri Lanka Emergency Debate in April.

“Their families are under attack,” he said during Saturday’s rally. “Their community is under attack. And it’s important for the government of Canada to stand with you in defending the rights of your families back home. And that’s essentially what we’re calling for here today.”

Layton said it’s time for Harper to pick up the phone and get in touch with the President of Sri Lanka and say ‘Open the camps and allow the people to go back to their homes’.

“It’s time for the people to be reunited with their families again,” said Layton. “Let the people of the world see the truth with international journalists and UN agencies permitted to go and see what is actually happening.”

Here in Canada, he said we could be helping families to reunite, opening the doors of Canada to Tamil refugees looking for a place to come and be with a community that will support them.

Activists in more than 10 countries held actions as part of the Unlock the Camps campaign. Events included a ‘Circle of Hope’ in Canada, a street march and signature campaign in Nepal, a poetry reading in Switzerland and solidarity actions in  France, Germany, Mauritius and the United States.

“Releases from the camps have increased in recent weeks,” said Amnesty International. “However, camp shelters have deteriorated as Sri Lanka has entered the rainy season, with funds for shelter repair running out.”

The international human rights organization said around 150,000 displaced people living in government camps in northern Sri Lanka are still being denied their basic human rights including freedom of movement, adding “the military control whether the displaced can leave camp premises - even to seek medical care - and they are denied basic legal protections.”

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