Sri Lanka displacement update

Briefing Notes, 2 June 2009

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Ron Redmond to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 2 June 2009, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

With fighting now at an end in Sri Lanka's north, UNHCR is working with the government of Sri Lanka and other humanitarian agencies to provide urgently needed aid to hundreds of thousands who fled the former conflict zone in the last several months.

Some 300,000 internally displaced persons (IDP) are accommodated in the 40 emergency shelter sites spread across the districts of Vavuniya, Jaffna and Trincomalee. UNHCR and partners are carrying out emergency shelter work, regular non-food distributions and protection monitoring.

UNHCR and shelter agencies have erected some 8,800 emergency shelters and more than 14,000 tents so far and will continue to set up more as land clearance continues. This year alone, we have distributed some 66,000 bed sheets, 73,000 plastic mats, 31,000 kitchen sets, tens of thousands of hygiene kits and hundreds of thousands of men's and women's clothing and other items. UNHCR is transporting additional aid from Colombo to replenish stocks in the areas concerned.

We continue to work closely with the government to better respond to the emergency from central government level to the local government officials who are involved with direct assistance activities on the ground.

The priorities are to decongest and improve conditions in the sites, stabilize the population and prepare for return. UNHCR is also in close dialogue with the government to ensure that the IDPs in the camps have freedom of movement. The government has taken positive steps on this front by releasing categories of persons with special needs, including the elderly and pregnant women, to specialized institutions as well as reunifying families separated during flight. We are encouraging the government to complete screening as soon as possible and separate the ex-combatants, so that the civilian population can be allowed to move freely in and out of the camps.

UNHCR's ultimate objective is to support government efforts to restore normalcy in the lives of this population by ensuring that they can return home as soon as conditions are in place. This includes addressing security issues; de-mining and removal of unexploded ordnance; village profile assessments and reconstruction of damaged homes; infrastructure and livelihood development; and reviving of the civil administration in the affected districts and provinces.




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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

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.

Picking Up the Pieces in Sri Lanka

Statelessness in Sri Lanka: Hill Tamils

Most of the people working on the hundreds of tea plantations that dot Sri Lanka's picturesque hill country are descended from ethnic Tamils brought from India between 1820 and 1840 when the island was under British colonial rule. Although these people, known as "Hill Tamils," have been making an invaluable contribution to Sri Lanka's economy for almost two centuries, up until recently the country's stringent citizenship laws made it next to impossible for them to berecognized as citizens. Without the proper documents they could not vote, hold a government job, open a bank account or travel freely.

The Hill Tamils have been the subject of a number of bilateral agreements in the past giving them the option between Sri Lankan and Indian citizenship. But in 2003, there were still an estimated 300,000 stateless people of Indian origin living in Sri Lanka.

Things improved markedly, in October 2003, after the Sri Lankan parliament passed the "Grant of Citizenship to People of Indian Origin Act," which gave nationality to people who had lived in Sri Lanka since 1964 and to their descendants. UNHCR, the government of Sri Lanka and local organizations ran an information campaign informing Hill Tamils about the law and the procedures for acquiring citizenship. With more than 190,000 of the stateless people in Sri Lanka receiving citizenship over a 10-day period in late 2003, this was heralded as a huge success story in the global effort to reduce statelessness.

Also, in 2009, the parliament passed amendments to existing regulations, granting citizenship to refugees who fled Sri Lanka's conflict and are living in camps in India. This makes it easier for them to return to Sri Lanka if they so wish to.

Statelessness in Sri Lanka: Hill Tamils

Sri Lanka: Home At LastPlay video

Sri Lanka: Home At Last

Grace Selvarani has lived in a refugee camp in India for the past two decades. Today, the Sri Lankan is delighted to be going back home by boat with more than 40 other refugees.
India/Sri Lanka: A Ferry Ride HomePlay video

India/Sri Lanka: A Ferry Ride Home

For the first time in many years, Sri Lankan refugees are returning home from India by ferry.
Sri Lanka: Time to ReturnPlay video

Sri Lanka: Time to Return

A year after the end of the long civil war in Sir Lanka, the government is slowly helping the internally displaced to return home.