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

While global attention has been focused on the hundreds of thousands of people uprooted by fighting in northern Sri Lanka in recent weeks, UNHCR is helping other displaced people in the east to go back and rebuild their homes.

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.   © UNHCR/G.Amarasinghe

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.