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Sri Lanka: Not home yet, but one step closer

Making a Difference, 18 August 2009

© UNHCR/B.Baloch
Displaced carpenter Vijeya Kuamr chats with a UNHCR staffer inside the temporary shelter he has built for himself with UNHCR materials at an interim stop on his way home.

TRINCOMALEE, Sri Lanka, August 18 (UNHCR) Forty-year-old Vijeya Kumar is giving the final touches to a newly erected shelter for his family in a village near this eastern town, using his professional carpentry skills and materials provided by the UN refugee agency.

One among thousands of Sri Lanka's internally displaced people, Kumar grabbed his family and fled to the neighbouring town of Batticaloa three years ago when Sri Lanka's 26-year civil war reached his village.

Now that the conflict is over, Kumar shares a dream in common with most of Sri Lanka's displaced: to be able to return home in safety. Luckier than many, Kumar is already one step closer to his dream.

He has recently relocated to a village just few miles away from his home in Sampoor. "I have to wait for few more months before I can return to my village, as it lies under an area declared a high security zone," says Kumar, father of a 17-year old son and an 11-year-old daughter.

More than 500,000 people were displaced during the long conflict, with around 280,000 fleeing just in the last few months of fighting in the north that ended the war in May.

The UN refugee agency, together with its partners, is supporting humanitarian initiatives to provide relief and assistance to displaced people in Sri Lanka during their displacement as well as when they are able to return home.

"UNHCR has been assisting people in Sri Lanka who have suffered from repetitive phases of displacement since 1987," said Elizabeth Tan, officer in charge of UNHCR operations in Colombo. "Their needs for shelter and relief supplies are looked after. People who are able to return are also supported with shelter kits and other relief items to make the transition process and resettling easier."

She added that "the best possible solution for a displaced person is to be able to return to his or her place of origin and home when conditions permit." During last two years, some 220,000 were able to return homes in eastern parts of Sri Lanka with UNHCR's help.

In the interim location where Kumar is working on his transitional shelter, 72 returnee families received material on land arranged by the community to support the returnees until their own lands are accessible. The others are carpenters, daily wage workers and farmers who were keen to return to their paddy fields.

"My son and I worked on this house and here it is ready to be occupied," says Kumar proudly, barely looking up from hammering nails into a wooden plank.

"Initially I was not sure about relocating to this place," he admits, "but now it feels good to be closer to your ancestral land. I know the community around this place and they know us. It feels good to be close your village, crop fields and be among your own community."

A returnee farmer, Thangarasa Rasakulasingham, 46, concedes that "moving from one location to another is difficult," but says "here we are almost home. We can access our paddy fields which are close to our present location. At Batticaloa we used to work for other people. Here at least it would be our land and our crop to cultivate and to harvest."

Kumar, for one, hopes his days on the run are over. "Once I am home," he says, "I will pray that there are no further displacements in my life or in the life of my fellow country men."

By Babar Baloch
in Trincomalee




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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

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