UNHCR concerned about safety of displaced persons in Sri Lanka

Press Releases, 29 September 2009

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is deeply concerned about reports of security incidents taking place inside camps accommodating internally displaced persons (IDPs) in northern Sri Lanka.

The most recent incident took place on Saturday, September 26th in the Menik Farm camp, in the district of Vavuniya, when security forces reportedly attempted to stop a group of IDPs from moving between two zones of the camp. This angered the IDPs who subsequently attacked the sentries.

Security personnel then reportedly opened fire to disperse the mob. Several people are said to have been injured, including a child who was hit by a stray bullet and is now paralyzed. There are also reports of several people being detained following the disturbance. UNHCR calls upon the government to ensure the protection and physical security of the IDPs and to undertake a swift investigation into the event.

This latest episode reinforces repeated calls by the UN and the international community to the government of Sri Lanka to accelerate the return process and restore freedom of movement for those displaced who choose to remain in the camps. It also shows the need to implement the host family programme that the government has announced, and which the UN has welcomed, which allows citizens to host IDPs.

Additional efforts are urgently needed to decongest overcrowded camps, particularly as the monsoon season approaches. The rains will lead to flooding of low lying areas of the camps, causing further deterioration of living conditions and posing possible threats to IDPs' health and safety.

Since June, at the request of the government, UN agencies together with partners have been carrying out work at the Menik Farm IDP sites to prepare them for the rainy season. However, UNHCR has advised the government that the sites are not adequately equipped to cope with the monsoons given the number of IDPs residing there.

Menik Farm consists of seven zones and is one of 21 closed camps spread across the Vavuniya, Jaffna, Mannar and Trincomalee districts. The camps accommodate more than 250,000 persons displaced by conflict. A government security screening process aimed at separating ex-combatants from civilians means that residents of the camps have no freedom of movement.

UNHCR acknowledges the government's release of some 15,000 IDPs from the camps since early August, including many vulnerable individuals, either to host families or to their homes as part of its ongoing 180-day return plan. The agency is calling on the government to expedite the screening process and to increase the rate of releases from the camps.

UNHCR is also concerned about the approximately 3,300 IDPs who were transferred to new closed transit camps in their districts of origin mid-September rather than being returned to their homes. While a brief transit in the district of origin might be required, some IDPs have been in these transit sites for more than two weeks.

Discussions between the UN refugee agency and the government on the resettlement process are continuing and UNHCR will provide return assistance as soon as IDPs are allowed to return to their homes.




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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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