After thirteen years of humanitarian aid, Switzerland will pursue other forms of engagement in Sri Lanka

Article, 29.02.2016

The SDC’s humanitarian aid in Sri Lanka is coming to an end after thirteen years of reconstruction work in the wake of the tsunami and recurrent outbreaks of conflict. Swiss efforts on the island will nevertheless continue in two areas – support for emigrating Sri Lankan workers and reconciliation work.

A child and a woman smiling in their rebuilt home.
Thousands of families in Sri Lanka have a roof over their heads again thanks to SDC Humanitarian Aid projects there. © FDFA

2016 is a milestone in the long relationship of cooperation between Switzerland and Sri Lanka. The activities of the SDC’s Humanitarian Aid will cease definitively in April, bringing to an end thirteen years of work on behalf of the most deprived with a great sense of accomplishment. In short, the SDC’s experts on the ground believe the main requirements have been met and that it is now time for Swiss Humanitarian Aid to focus on other priorities.

Historical background: the SDC began its activities in Sri Lanka in 2003, opening an office in Jaffna, in the north of the island, shortly after the ceasefire agreement between the Sri Lankan government and the rebel forces of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Entire towns were completely destroyed by the fighting. The SDC’s Humanitarian Aid launched an initial reconstruction programme for the thousands of survivors of the armed conflict.

A ‘Swiss consortium’ to tackle the aftermath of the tsunami

The dreadful tsunami on 26 December 2004 triggered a new, unprecedented humanitarian response shortly afterwards. Having rapidly dispatched various experts from the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit to organise emergency assistance, the SDC then joined forces with the Swiss Red Cross, Swiss Interchurch Aid and Swiss Solidarity to launch an extensive second reconstruction programme in the districts of Matara in the south and Trincomalee in the east. The ‘Swiss consortium’ repaired or rebuilt 10,500 homes and 18 schools in total over a three-year period.

Finally, a third reconstruction initiative was implemented between 2009 and 2015 at the end of another period of fatal and destructive conflict between the Sri Lankan army and the LTTE in the north of the country. Drawing on its experience, this time the SDC put a roof over the heads of 5,000 families and enabled more than 1,200 pupils to return to school. Its activities not only involved the rebuilding of houses, schools and wells, but also a plan for revitalising the local economy and providing livelihood opportunities for the population through micro-investment in the fishing industry, in particular.

Migration and reconciliation on the agenda

After peaceful elections saw a new government installed in power in January 2015, Switzerland will in future focus its cooperation activities in Sri Lanka on two areas in which it has been working for several years – labour migration and reconciliation.

Since 2010 the SDC has been working to ensure safer migration for Sri Lankan workers heading for the Gulf states, for example. As part of its Global Migration and Development Programme, the SDC aims to make certain that economic migrants are well informed about their rights and receive legal aid where necessary. It also helps to prepare families for the departure of one of their members, especially when mothers leave the home given the key role they play in everyday life. The drawing-up of a well-conceived national policy on migration by the Sri Lankan authorities is vital to improve the protection of migrant workers and to harness the positive effects of migration. The SDC is also supporting the government here.

Another area where Switzerland can provide valuable assistance is reconciliation and dealing with the past. The authorities and people have to come to terms with a profound legacy of intercommunity violence of all kinds. An advisor from the FDFA’s Human Security Division has been posted at the Swiss embassy in Colombo since 2003 to facilitate the ongoing reconciliation process, to open up scope for dialogue and to support constitutional reform. The consultations involve representatives from all political and ethnic groups as well as Sri Lankans residing abroad.

Map showing the areas where the SDC operated after the tsunami in 2004 and at the end of the conflict in 2009.
After helping victims of the 2004 tsunami to rebuild their homes (red areas), the SDC extended its aid programme to the north of Sri Lanka following the last outbreak of armed violence which blighted the region in 2008 and 2009 (grey area). © SDC