UNHCR welcomes Sri Lankan decision to ease conditions for internally displaced

News Stories, 5 December 2009

© UNHCR/Z.Sinclair
Internally displaced Sri Lankan women in the north of the country.

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, December 4 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency on Friday welcomed the Sri Lankan government's long-awaited decision this week to allow increased freedom of movement for some 135,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) remaining in 20 closed camps in the north of the country.

UNHCR field staff reported that more than 7,000 IDPs from the Menik Farm camps in Vavuniya and another 25 people from the camp in Trincomalee left their sites on the first day the new policy came into force.

"Our teams are in the process of assessing the number of IDPs exercising their new freedom of movement over the past few days and report that people continue to leave the camps," said a UNHCR spokesperson.

Generally, IDPs who wish to leave the camps are provided with a pass issued by the local authorities. These documents include details such as the district of origin, date of departure and date of return to the camp, temporary address for those who will remain away overnight and details of family members.

The pass will also represent a form of identification for those who do not yet have their national identity card. A similar system is in place for the IDP camp in Trincomalee and the four camps in Mannar. In Jaffna, the pass system is in the process of being implemented in the remaining closed sites.

According to UNHCR teams on the ground, many people left their belongings in the camps, which is an indication that they intend to return. Some of those interviewed told UNHCR they wanted to visit friends and relatives in other camps, in Vavuniya town, and the centres where those with suspected links with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE, are being held.

While authorities say that there is no time limit to the freedom of movement, there were reports that IDPs would only be allowed to stay away from the camps for up to 10 days. Many are also scheduled to return to their areas of origin in the coming days and weeks under the government-organized return plan.

"Our teams also report that, in general, people are happy to go back to their areas of origin where more basic services, such as health clinics and schools, are reopening," said the UNHCR spokesperson. "We hope as this new freedom of movement continues and the IDPs are fully informed of the process, inconsistencies across the different camps and districts and bureaucratic obstacles will be ironed out so that all IDPs will be able to exercise their right to full freedom of movement."

UNHCR hopes that mine clearance efforts keep pace with the rapid rate of returns and that IDPs are only returned to areas cleared of ordnance or where suspected areas are clearly demarcated. In addition, more efforts are needed in improving infrastructure as well as in development of livelihood support for the returnees. UNHCR is supporting the return process through the provision of a shelter grant and non-food relief items to all returning families.

At the end of the conflict between Sri Lankan armed forces and the LTTE last May, some 280,000 newly displaced people were staying in camps in Vavuniya, Mannar, Jaffna and Trincomalee. Since August, more than 150,000 IDPs from the former conflict zone or more than 50 per cent of the post-conflict total of IDPs have left the camps in Sri Lanka's north and east, a majority of them as part of the Sri Lankan government's return process.

By Sulakshini Perera in Colombo, Sri Lanka




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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.

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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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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.

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