March 30, 2011

SRI LANKA: Older returnees face isolation, poverty

COLOMBO / IRIN-Integrated Regional Information Networks-ASIA / News / March 30, 2011

Thousands of older returnees to Sri Lanka's conflict-affected north feel marginalized and need medical care, experts say.

Elderly returnees need greater assistance.
Photo: Amantha Perera/IRIN

"There are hardly any programmes to help these people," said Samantha Liyanawaduge, executive director of HelpAge Sri Lanka, one of just a handful of agencies targeting older returnees.

Although no official figures are available, estimates suggest there are more than 30,000 people over the age of 60 in the Vanni, a vast swath of land in the island's north once under the control of the defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which waged a decades-long civil war for an independent Tamil homeland.

Since the war ended in May 2009, more than 320,000 displaced have returned to their homes or are now staying with relatives, the UN reports.

According to community workers, many of the elderly show signs of trauma or isolation and struggle to meet their daily needs. Those without extended family support face poverty, loneliness, dependency, ill health and lack of nutrition and access to adequate healthcare.

Chelliah Philip Nesakumar, an Anglican priest from Kilinochchi, the former de-facto capital of the LTTE, says the elderly often feel abandoned, with some demonstrating sudden outbursts of anger.

"On the surface they appear ok, but many are carrying the psychological scars of two-and-a-half decades of war," Nesakumar said.

Veeran Pandaran, a 61-year-old grandfather from Kilinochchi, had hoped things would get better when the war ended. "Life is certainly safer now, but we've been left to fend for ourselves," Pandaran said.

Ongoing development and rehabilitation work in his area includes hardly any programmes tailored to the old and impaired, he claimed. "There is nothing to help people like me," he insisted. "It's as if we are not important."

Limited resources

HelpAge Sri Lanka - which has been working for the rights of marginalized senior citizens since 1986 - would like to do more, but resources are limited, forcing the agency to focus on the most serious cases first.

In February, it opened a small sub-office in Kilinochchi to coordinate its work and dispatch mobile medical clinics to the area each week.

Thousand of Sri Lankans, many of them old, fled the conflict. Photo: Dominic Sansoni/World Bank

Most of the elderly have cataracts. Of every 100 people the NGO sees, more than 60 percent are given glasses, while 20 to 30 percent require surgery.

HelpAge has its own eye clinic near the capital, Colombo, which can carry out cataract operations free of charge; however, many people are physically unable to travel the 300km distance, or simply do not have the funds to make the journey.

This in turn leaves them no other option but to seek treatment at a hospital in the northern town of Vavuniya, 70km south of Killinochi, where the operation can be carried out at a cost of around US$55 - money many simply do not have.

"That's money these people don't have to spare," Liyanawaduge said.

HelpAge organizes community groups and would also like to initiate programmes to generate income for them.

In the east of the country, Help Age has used elders' groups to start home-gardening, poultry and small cattle-farming operations.

"We know more needs to be done, but we simply don't have the financial resources to take them on," Liyanawaduge said.

Copyright © IRIN 2011.