UNHCR demining machines to arrive in Sri Lanka

Briefing Notes, 6 November 2009

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 6 November 2009, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

Some 90,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) have returned to their villages in Sri Lanka's north and east over the past three months, under the ongoing return plan of the Sri Lankan government.

The majority returned to the districts of Jaffna, Vavuniya, Mannar, Mullaitivu, Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Ampara. Small numbers have also gone back to the Polonnaruwa district. During the last two weeks alone, some 39,000 people have returned as part of the government's efforts to accelerate the process.

In addition, some 16,500 persons have been been released from the camps and are now accommodated with host families. This includes a number of people with special needs such as the ederly, pregnant women and those with disabilities who have been released to specialized care institutions.

In support of the government's return process, UNHCR, together with other UN agencies, is distributing relief items such as sleeping mats, bed sheets and hurricane lamps to the returnees. We also carry out protection monitoring in the return areas, verifying the return conditions. We are providing the returning families with a shelter grant of Rs 25,000 (approximately $250), as a first step towards helping them rebuild their homes and restart their lives, which they can access through the Bank of Ceylon.

UNHCR is also discussing with the government the situation in Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu to ensure that minimum return standards, such as completion of demining and access to services, are adhered to.

In addition to its overall assistance progammes, UNHCR is providing five demining flail machines to help accelerate humanitarian mine clearing operations in former conflict areas. These machines are scheduled to arrive tomorrow (7 November) and will be handed over to the government. The equipment will be immediately dispatched to the return areas in the Sri Lanka's north, where demining is being carried out by the Sri Lankan Government together with UNDP and other international and local demining actors.

Humanitarian demining and the removal of unexploded ordnance (UXO) are pre-requisites for delivery of humanitarian assistance, early recovery and development in conflict affected areas. Demining also enables infrastructure development and the resumption of social services and livelihoods.

Some 274,000 people were displaced on multiple occasions during the final months of the conflict in Sri Lanka and then accommodated in closed camps in the Vavuniya, Jaffna, Mannar and Trincomalee districts. Following the recent returns, some 163,000 people still remain in the camps where conditions are deteriorating. UNHCR and other UN agencies continue to advocate strongly with the government of Sri Lanka to expedite the return of all remaining IDPs to their areas of origin in safety and dignity and in line with international standards. We also continue to advocate for the full freedom of movement for those who are not able to immediately return to their homes or stay with friends and relatives once the ongoing phase of the return is complete.

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Tsunami Aftermath in Sri Lanka

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.

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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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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.

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