Q&A: Northern Sri Lanka emerges from conflict but challenges remain

News Stories, 7 April 2010

© and courtesy of Vicky Tennant
Vicky Tennant, UNHCR Senior Policy Officer

GENEVA, April 7 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation have just released a report that examines the impact of a cash grant provided by UNHCR to help displaced people in northern Sri Lanka return home and restart their lives. As the last phase of the long conflict between government forces and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) unfolded early last year, more than 280,000 civilians were forced to flee. With the end of the war, the majority were relocated to camps run by the government with the help of humanitarian agencies, and towards the end of 2009 they started to return home. UNHCR Senior Policy Officer Vicky Tennant, one of the authors of the report, talked to Public Information Officer Hélène Caux about her visit to northern Sri Lanka earlier this year and discussed the implications of a recent decision to suspend the grant owing to a lack of funding. Excerpts from the interview:

What was the purpose of the joint mission to Sri Lanka?

We were there to do an evaluation of the support that UNHCR has been giving through the shelter grant programme. We were looking at the impact this was having and whether it was helping people to re-establish their lives back in their home areas. Essentially these were people who were displaced in the last phase of the fighting in northern Sri Lanka more than quarter-of-a-million people. They went through some extremely traumatic experiences during the conflict and most of them spent several months in closed camps before they were allowed to return.

Tell us a bit more about the cash grants

The cash grant consists of a payment which is made to each returning family 25,000 Sri Lankan rupees (about US$220) per family. The first 5,000 rupees is paid by the government when they arrive and is later reimbursed by UNHCR. After a few days, UNHCR and the government register the returnees and give them a form that they then can take to the Bank of Ceylon to open an account and withdraw the other 20,000 rupees whenever it is convenient.

The banking system in Sri Lanka is pretty effective and the banks continued to function throughout most of the conflict, even in the north of the country. There are three Bank of Ceylon branches in the main return area, the Vanni, and the bank has mobile teams that it has been sending to the villages where the returnees are coming back. It seemed to have been working pretty well.

The aim of the grant was to help people rebuild their homes, carry out essential repairs or, if necessary, to build some kind of temporary shelter. But, really, the positive thing about cash grants is that they are very flexible and they allow people to decide what their own priorities are. It's also a good way for UNHCR to be present during the return process and monitor how things are going for the people who are returning. The organization has been using cash grants for many years now, especially in these large-scale return situations, and we've found that it's a really effective way of providing people with the support they need.

We were really disappointed to hear after our return that the cash grant had to be suspended because of lack of funding. From what we saw, people were using the money very constructively and it was making a big difference to those first weeks after they had returned.

What were people using the money for?

What we found is that they were using the cash grants for a whole range of things, including shelter. We spoke to one man who had bought tools to clear his land so he could replant his fields. We spoke to people who told us they spent part of it to buy fresh vegetables. Others used some to buy clothes for their children.

A lot of people told us they used the grant to buy bicycles. For example, young men looking for work can use bicycles to go to the nearest town, or maybe to go to the market and buy food. Some take their kids to school by bike. In fact that was probably the number one thing that people mentioned buying a bicycle because the public transport services are still very limited.

Which areas did you visit in Sri Lanka?

After meeting people in Colombo, we went to Vavuniya. We visited some of the return areas in the Vanni, which is the area in the north where the last conflict took place. The Vanni was completely depopulated during the final phase of displacement last year. As the frontline moved, people moved with it. So it is a very dramatic situation because it was completely empty. People going back have to start from scratch. We spent a few days in that area with returnees. Then we went west to Mannar and then up to Jaffna, where more than 50 per cent of the returnees have gone to.

Did you see a lot of destruction?

Most of the houses have been either completely destroyed or severely damaged. In the Vanni, the pace of return has been very fast. More than half of the people who were displaced have come back. But there are still areas which have not been cleared of mines.

What do the returnees need most?

The big thing is livelihoods. People really need to earn a living to start to support their families again. That means being able to replant their fields; that means being able to find labouring work in the nearest town. For women heads of household, having access to some kind of income, some kind of livelihood, is very important. Fishermen needed new boats, new nets. People talked a lot also about education the children are really focused on education. That said, many schools are up and running again in the return areas ... that was very impressive.

What was the general mood like?

Essentially, people are glad to be home ... especially after the experience they have gone through in the last 18 months or so, going from being in the middle of a conflict to being in a closed camp. But I suspect the optimism and happiness at being home will give way pretty quickly to anxiety and real concerns.

There are a lot of positive things happening: you can really see the economy coming alive again and there has been a lot of investment by the government in terms of trying to get services up and running, education, health and so on. But these people lost absolutely everything. As the frontline moved, they had to leave all their possessions behind ... and they are returning with absolutely nothing, apart from the assistance that they are given [including non-food items from UNHCR]. US$220 is the equivalent of three months salary for a casual labourer. It seems like a relatively solid amount of money. But when you look at what they have to do to get their lives going again, it is really a drop in the ocean.

Also many people have lost family members during the war, or still have relatives missing. You do get a sense that people have been quite traumatized. There are also a lot of concerns because some have family members who are still being held in rehabilitation camps because they are suspected of involvement in the conflict we're talking about some 11,000 people. So there is a sense that until the family is complete again, then the return process won't really be successful.

What has the government been doing to help?

I think the government has really been working very hard with the humanitarian agencies to try to put together a good package of support, but there is still a lot that needs to be done, especially to deal with the shelter destruction, and help people to rebuild their livelihoods.... In the areas we visited, we saw that UNHCR is working really well with the local government officials.

Tell us about the women heads of household. How do they survive?

A lot of women lost their husbands during the war. Others have husbands who are still in rehabilitation camps. I think they face a lot of challenges. For example, it's difficult for a woman to rebuild her shelter on her own. She is going to probably spend some of her money on hiring casual labour to help her. I think that is one area that humanitarian agencies should be focusing on.

There is also anxiety as a result of the heavy military presence.

What about the people still living in camps?

There are almost 100,000 people still in the new camps and they certainly have greater freedom of movement than in the past. There's a pass system in place which means they can leave the camp for up to 10 days at a time, which is a big improvement. Hopefully, as more and more areas are cleared for return, the majority of them will also be able to go back home soon.

The cash grant programme was suspended in early March. What effect has this had?

I think it will mean that those going back from now on will have to struggle to a much greater extent to meet their immediate needs. They won't have access anymore to this flexible means of support.... So, unlike those who have already gone back, they won't be immediately able to do things like buy timber to rebuild their homes or pay someone to clear their land. They also won't be able to make the sort of small investments that we have seen others do. So I think it is a really disappointing development.

Could it affect future returns?

It is really hard to say. Probably the majority of people will go back anyway, because people want to go home. But sometimes what happens in these situations is that the people who are the most vulnerable are the ones who wait a little bit before returning. So for them, the fact that they will no longer have the cash grant could make a big difference.




UNHCR country pages

Banking on solutions

A real-time evaluation of UNHCR's shelter grant programme for returning displaced people in northern Sri Lanka. Jeff Crisp, Andreas Graf and Vicky Tennant, March 2010.

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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