UNHCR sends more field experts as civilians return to Sri Lanka's north

A second team of UNHCR emergency experts arrive in Sri Lanka. The four include specialists on community services, protection and other field functions.

A UNHCR staff member talks to displaced people in northern Sri Lanka.  © UNHCR/B.Alaj

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, May 1 (UNHCR) - A second team of UNHCR emergency experts arrived in Sri Lanka on Friday. The team of four includes specialists on community services, protection and other essential field functions. They follow the deployment of five experts to the north in February and March.

More than 170,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) have fled the conflict zone in the north-east, including 120,000 during the last 10 days. They are accommodated in 38 sites in four districts of the north and east of the country. UNHCR and its partners have mounted a massive humanitarian operation in support of the government to assist these displaced people.

While thousands of displaced people continue to arrive in Vavuniya, Jaffna and Trincomalee districts, others are returning to their homes in the first government-organized return operation in northern Sri Lanka for years. The area to where they are returning, Musali in Mannar district, was for a long time the frontline in the fighting between the armed forces and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels.

Some 400 people returned on Thursday to Saveriyarpuram village in Musali. They were displaced about two years ago and have since lived in camps and with host families in Mannar district. A total of some 3,000 internally displaced people have registered to return to 15 villages in Musali over the coming weeks.

UNHCR welcomes these returns as a positive development. While the number of those returning to their homes is still small it is an important starting point. We hope that returns to other areas in northern Sri Lanka will also be possible soon.

Over the past few weeks, UNHCR field monitoring teams have spoken with the IDPs about their concerns regarding return. UNHCR verified that mine clearance in Saveriyarpuram village had been completed. People said they were keen to return, but were worried about their houses and how to make a living once back home.

UNHCR provided each family at the transit site with a return package which includes a tarpaulin kit to construct an emergency shelter for the days after the return, and jungle clearing tools. Over the coming days UNHCR will distribute household items inside the return area, including mosquito nets, mats, water containers and hurricane lamps. As a major intervention to help returnees with reintegration, UNHCR will repair up to 320 houses in Musali.