Development environment

Sri Lanka

Mid-year update 2017 (January - June)

New displacements (Disasters) IDMC (1 January - 30 June 2017)

Download disaster context (PDF, 364 KB)

Country Information

Population UN Population Division (as of 2017)
Total number of IDPs (Conflict and violence) IDMC (as of 31 December 2017)
New displacements (Disasters) IDMC (1 January - 31 December 2016)
Refugees UNHCR (as of 2016)

Conflict and violence displacement figures

Latest GRID confidence assessment

Displacement type Returnees (Stock) IDPs (Stock)
Reporting units People
Methodology Registration
Geographical disaggregation Subnational - admin 1 Subnational - admin 1
Geographical coverage No No
Frequency of reporting Every 6 months Every 6 months
Disaggregation on sex No No
Disaggregation on age No No
Data triangulation No Triangulation No Triangulation
Data on settlement elsewhere No No
Data on returns Yes No
Data on local integration No No
Data on deaths No No
Data on births No No

Latest GRID figures analysis

IDMC’s estimate refers to people who remain in displacement following the conclusion of Sri Lanka’s 30-year civil war in 2009. The data on which this figure is based is provided by the Government of Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Prison Reforms, Rehabilitation, Resettlement and Hindu Religious Affairs.

Download extended figures analysis (PDF, 41 KB)

Latest GRID stock figure by year of data update

Disaster displacement figures

New displacements

Events timeline


Recent protracted displacement and continuing displacement risk in Sri Lanka have resulted from natural hazard-induced disasters, civil war, large-scale development projects and human rights violations. Over one million people were displaced by the civil war from 1986 to 2009, and a majority of them have returned to their places of origin or relocated to other areas of the country. Many thousands of them, however, are still in need of protection and assistance in doing so and have yet to attain a durable solution. Though increased efforts have been made to improve disaster risk management, particularly since the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami disaster of 2004, disaster-related displacement occurs frequently. An average of 321,000 new displacements are recorded each year and result in repeated and protracted displacement for vulnerable families and communities.

Drivers of displacement

The drivers of displacement in Sri Lanka are numerous, including disasters induced by natural hazards, civil war, development projects such as road construction and human rights violations. In many cases, their impacts overlap, compounding the underlying vulnerability-linked poverty, inequality, and weak governance and protection of vulnerable groups, including minorities, informal settlers, women, children, people with disabilities and older people that drive and perpetuate displacement risk. While the country has achieved middle-income status and has one of the lowest rates of extreme poverty in the region, general living standards are low and pockets of severe poverty remain. Ineffective governance impedes greater progress and has allowed ongoing abuses of power.

The country is exposed to a range of hazards associated with displacement induced by disasters, including floods, storm, landslides and wildfires. Populations in the hilly inland country areas are particularly exposed to landslides and flash floods. Although these tend to be triggered by heavy rainfall, the risk is largely determined by geological and topographical factors combined with poor land use management and development that degrades the environment and puts people in harm’s way. The island is also occasionally exposed to tsunamis. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami caused the deaths of more than 35,000 people, initial displacement of around a million people, and prolonged or protracted displacement of over 515,000 people. Climate change impacts are likely to cause increased variability in temperature and rainfall, leading to the increased incidence of floods, droughts and epidemics in the country, with heavy impacts on the agriculture and fisheries sectors, on which a large proportion of the poor or near-poor depend for their livelihoods.

Sri Lanka is still recovering from decades of civil war that ended with the cessation of hostilities in 2009. Ethnic tensions and discrimination in favour of the Sinhalese majority over the Tamil and Muslim minorities gave rise to increasing militancy among the Tamil population. By 1989, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had established themselves as the main militant group fighting the government’s armed forces. With fighting concentrated in the northern and eastern areas of the country, well over a million Sri Lankans were displaced both internally and abroad. While most of those displaced were Tamil, the LTTE internally displaced all 75,000 Muslims from the north of the country in 1990.

After 2006, the final phase of the conflict brought a formal end to hostilities, but not to displacement. As of May 2015, up to 73,600 people remained internally displaced in the country’s northern and eastern districts, with the majority staying in welfare centres or with host families and friends in Jaffna. In addition, tens of thousands of the more than 794,000 people registered as having returned to their homes still have unmet needs related to their displacement. Impoverishment resulting from displacement hit families who were already landless and poor, including families engaged in small-scale farming and/or fishing who were surviving independently but with little savings. Displacement deprived them of access to land, livestock, and fishing grounds and equipment. Many IDPs became dependent on aid and the support of host communities.

A new government came to power in January 2015 and created new hope for people internally displaced by conflict, though major concerns remain. A national policy on durable solutions for conflict-affected IDPs, refugee returnees and populations affected by displacement was approved in August 2016. Almost 10,000 acres of private residential and agricultural land was occupied by the military during the civil conflict. One positive development has been the release of several thousand acres of government-occupied land that was formerly home to people internally displaced by conflict in order to enable their return and resettlement. As of October 2016, however, over 7,600 acres of land that was home to IDPs before their displacement, mostly in Jaffna, was still occupied by the government.

Patterns of displacement

Since 2008, natural hazards have triggered almost 2.9 million displacements, an average of around 321,000 per year, mostly related to floods and storms. The people displaced usually take immediate shelter in a variety of locations, including temporary camps, schools, religious buildings, community centres, and with friends and relatives. Tropical cyclone Roanu, which hit Sri Lanka on 15 May 2016, led to widespread flooding and landslides that forced over 500,000 people to evacuate their homes. Around 303,000 of them stayed in emergency shelters, while a further 200,000 lived with host families.

Coupled with the absence of return as an option, delayed and flawed relocation processes can prolong displacement for years. Roanu triggered flash floods and landslides that buried entire villages. Over 4,000 people (1,426 families) were displaced by a landslide in Aranayake and relocated to 23 camps. Almost a year later, 469 families were still in temporary tents or semi-permanent houses, and only 62 houses had been rebuilt. Meanwhile, health conditions deteriorated as people awaited relocation to safer areas. In another case, hundreds displaced by a landslide in Koslanda on 29 October 2014 stayed in camps for well over a year, with the last being relocated two years later. At the same time, 30 families living near their buried village require relocation to safe areas but have refused to move as long as permanent housing is unavailable.

The civil war created complex displacement patterns. As it escalated, the state and humanitarian actors opened hundreds of camps for displaced people, while others stayed with host families. In 2008 and 2009, the entire population of the Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu districts was displaced. IDPs from Puttalam and Mannar who returned after a ceasefire in 2002 were displaced again in 2006 or 2007. While the large majority of IDPs have since returned, outstanding needs are significant. Meanwhile, people still displaced in Jaffna, Puttalam and Mannar make up two-thirds of the remaining conflict IDPs and have been displaced for 25 years or more.

Progress towards durable solutions varies greatly. The government has identified 12,505 IDP families in the Northern and Eastern provinces who still require assistance in resettling elsewhere. In 2016, 936 landless, internally displaced families in Jaffna were to be settled elsewhere in the country by the end of the year, though only 100 houses had been handed over by November. In Vavuniya, land was made available for 97 such families, and a local NGO was to build houses. In Mullaitivu, some land occupied by the armed forces was released in March 2017, opening the way for IDPs to return. However, returning IDPs are living in makeshift shelters and lack access to basic needs and services. A strong military presence continues to create anxiety. While the government has promised housing assistance, IDPs have protested the revocation of land permits granted upon their earlier relocation to a “model village” built by the army.

Priority needs and vulnerabilities

For the overwhelming majority of IDPs, return is the preferred option. In practice, their choices also depend on whether return is permitted, possible or safe, whether assistance is provided to support return or other options, and on the availability of adequate compensation and the rebuilding of infrastructure in order to make return or other options sustainable.

Key obstacles to achieving durable solutions to displacement related to the civil war include the occupation of land by state actors, landlessness, land disputes, landmines, lack of assistance and lack of infrastructure. At the same time, IDPs returning to devastated areas need assistance in reconstructing houses, developing and restoring traditional livelihoods, and improving access to basic facilities and services. IDPs and returnees continue to voice security fears, given the close proximity of military camps to relocation and return areas in Mullaitivu, Kilinochchi, Jaffna and Trincomalee.

Among the people displaced by disaster who are unable to return to their former homes or are required to relocate out of high-risk areas, participatory relocation processes are needed that also attend to livelihoods and health issues while they await settlement elsewhere, along with expedited processes to identify appropriate land. In all displacement contexts, the specific needs of particularly vulnerable persons among the displaced, including the differently abled, households headed by women, and the elderly, protection and psychosocial needs, and transitional justice processes need to be prioritised and addressed more effectively.

Selected references

National Policy on Durable Solution for conflict-affected displacement, approved on 16 August 2016

Ministry of Disaster Management, Sri Lanka Comprehensive Disaster Management Programme (SLCDMP) 2014-2018

IDMC, Time for a new approach: Ending protracted displacement in Sri Lanka, Discussion Paper, 1 July 2015

IDMC, Sri Lanka Overview: Almost five years of peace but tens of thousands of war-displaced still without solution, 2 February 2014

Government of Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka: Post Tsunami recovery and reconstruction, progress, challenges, way forward, 27 December 2005