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

News Stories, 1 May 2009

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

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.

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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.

Tsunami Aftermath in Sri Lanka

Picking Up the Pieces in Sri Lanka

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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Sri Lanka: IDPs and Returnees

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.

Sri Lanka: IDPs and Returnees

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