Overshadowed by displacement in Sri Lanka's north, people return home in the east

News Stories, 6 November 2008

© UNHCR/G.Amarasinghe
A Leap of Faith: Displaced people return to their village in the east of Sri Lanka under a government-facilitated process, with help from UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies.

BATTICALOA, Sri Lanka, November 6 (UNHCR) As the tide of people uprooted by fighting in northern Sri Lanka continues to swell, there's overlooked good news in the east of the country: internally displaced people (IDPs) are returning home with help from the government, UNHCR and its partners.

Some 230,000 persons are said to be displaced in the Kilinochchi and Mullativu districts as a result of intensified military operations to regain the last stronghold of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Humanitarian agencies have sent emergency supplies to feed the IDPs, most of whom are accommodated in the Mullativu district. More humanitarian convoys carrying food and shelter material are planned during the coming weeks.

Sri Lanka's east experienced a similar wave of displacement two years ago when government forces regained LTTE-held territories in the region. By the end of March 2007, some 170,000 people were reportedly displaced across the Batticaloa and Trincomalee districts.

All but 11,000 IDPs in Batticaloa and more than 4,500 persons in Trincomalee have returned home since the start of the government-facilitated process last year, which has seen substantial improvements thanks to interventions by the UN refugee agency and other humanitarian agencies operating in the east.

"UNHCR continues to monitor returns, along with the conditions in the existing 17 IDP sites," said Axel Bisschop, the agency's senior programme officer in Colombo. "In coordination with our partners, we are also distributing relief items and carrying out regular protection monitoring in both the IDP sites and return areas."

Earlier this month, the government organized another "go-and-see" visit for a dozen residents of a welfare centre outside Batticaloa town to allow them to assess conditions in the villages before deciding whether to return.

The IDPs were taken to the village in an area once controlled by the LTTE. UNHCR accompanies IDPs on these visits, which are an important element in ensuring the voluntary nature of the process. They are preceded by mine clearance and joint pre-return assessments by UN agencies.

"In the past, some returns were rushed, but the process has seen substantial improvements since its inception," said Jens Hesemann, head of UNHCR's field office in Batticaloa. "All these improvements contribute towards making the returns sustainable with the ultimate goal of providing a lasting solution for these people."

However, agencies are still trying to address several concerns in the return areas, such as water and sanitation, housing and the lack of livelihoods. During the latest go-and-see visit, IDPs were given the opportunity to raise these concerns with the district's top administrator and the local military commander in the presence of UNHCR.

Selvarasa Amodani, a nursery school teacher, questioned the level of protection her family would have if they opted to return. The area commander assured the returnees they could come to him if they had any problems.

Others spoke about land ownership and safety in the remote areas. One worried about wild elephants while another said she had heard food rations would be cut if they did not move out of the camp.

After the discussion, Amodani seemed reassured and said her family would return. In her absence, looters had stripped her house of everything, including the doors, but she's relieved that the structure still has a roof. Some of her neighbours will have to move into temporary shelters due to the dire condition of their homes.

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Tsunami Aftermath in Sri Lanka

Shortly after the tsunami hit Sri Lanka, killing over 30,000 people and displacing nearly 800,000, UNHCR was asked to take a lead role in providing transitional shelter – bridging the gap between emergency tents and the construction of permanent homes. The refugee agency is not normally involved in natural disasters, but lent its support to the effort because of the scale of the devastation and because many of the tsunami-affected people were also displaced by the conflict.

Since the 26 December 2004 tsunami, UNHCR has helped in the coordination and construction of over 55,000 transitional shelters and has directly constructed, through its partners, 4,500 shelters in Jaffna in the north, and Ampara District in the east. These efforts are helping some 20,000 people rebuild their lives.

On 15 November, 2005, UNHCR completed its post-tsunami shelter role and formally handed over responsibility for the shelter sector to the Sri Lankan government. Now, UNHCR is returning its full focus to its pre-tsunami work of providing assistance to people internally displaced by the conflict, and refugees repatriating from India.

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In an unprecedented response to a natural disaster, the U.N. refugee agency – whose mandate is to protect refugees fleeing violence and persecution – has kicked off a six-month, multi-million dollar emergency relief operation to aid tsunami victims in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Somalia. UNHCR has worked in Sri Lanka for nearly 20 years and has the largest operational presence in the country with seven offices, 113 staff and a strong network of partnerships in place. The day of the tsunami, UNHCR opened up its warehouses in the island nation and began distributing existing stockpiles – including plastic sheeting, cooking sets and clothing for 100,000 people.

UNHCR estimates that some 889,000 people are now displaced in Sri Lanka, including many who were already displaced by the long-running conflict in the north. Prior to the tsunami, UNHCR assisted 390,000 people uprooted by the war. UNHCR is now expanding its logistical and warehouse capacity throughout the island to facilitate delivery of relief items to the needy populations, including in the war-affected area. The refugee agency is currently distributing relief items and funding mobile health clinics to assist the injured and sick.

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During Sri Lanka's 20-year civil war more than 1 million people were uprooted from their homes or forced to flee, often repeatedly. Many found shelter in UNHCR-supported Open Relief Centers, in government welfare centers or with relatives and friends.

In February 2002, the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) signed a cease-fire accord and began a series of talks aimed at negotiating a lasting peace. By late 2003, more than 300,000 internally displaced persons had returned to their often destroyed towns and villages.

In the midst of these returns, UNHCR provided physical and legal protection to war affected civilians – along with financing a range of special projects to provide new temporary shelter, health and sanitation facilities, various community services, and quick and cheap income generation projects.

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