UNHCR welcomes resumption of return movements in northern Sri Lanka

News Stories, 27 April 2010

© UNHCR/S.Perera
Returnees wait to receive their shelter grant last year in northern Sri Lanka.

GENEVA, April 27 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency on Tuesday welcomed the resumption of government-led return movements in northern Sri Lanka, following a three-week pause for the general election, the Sinhala holiday and the Tamil New Year. Some 7,000 internally displaced people (IDP) have returned to their homes in the districts of Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu since the operation resumed last week.

Some 207,000 IDPs have left camps in the north and east of the country since the organized return process began in August last year. They have either returned to their homes or are staying with friends and relatives in Vavuniya, Mannar, Jaffna and other districts.

"People are returning to areas which suffered major destruction," UNHCR spokesperson, Andrej Mahecic, told journalists in Geneva. "To assist them to rebuild their lives, we are providing each returning family with a shelter cash grant of 25,000 rupees [$US220] through the state Bank of Ceylon. More than 40,000 families had already received the cash grant by March," he added.

In the past month, UNHCR was forced to suspend this assistance due to a funding shortfall, but thanks to recent contributions by donors, the refugee agency will be restarting the shelter cash grants by the end of the week. Most of these funds will be used to assist some 10,000 families who have returned to their homes but have not yet received the grant due to the suspension.

"There are still some 82,000 people living in the camps or with host families in the north and more returns are expected to take place this year. However, more funds are urgently needed for families who are expected to return in the coming weeks and months," Mahecic stressed.

A recent UNHCR assessment showed that although some families used the cash grants to start repairing their houses or to construct new shelters, others use the grant according to their own priorities. Many returnees purchased bicycles, which allows them to access services, transport goods and re-establish social networks. Some families may also use the money to pay for labour for land clearance or invest it in starting up small businesses.

Meanwhile, UNHCR continues to distribute other relief aid to returnees such as plastic mats, mosquito nets, clothing and jungle clearing tools. Mine clearance efforts are continuing as well as the government's reconstruction of infrastructure after years of war. Livelihood activities and general services such as transport, health and education are still lacking in most of the return areas. Addressing these issues will help anchor the returns.

"During return monitoring, many communities tell us about the issues they are facing upon return. For instance, single women as heads of households in the Vanni region say they have few opportunities to generate income upon return. They also face challenges in obtaining certain types of documentation, such as death certificates for their deceased husbands," Mahecic said, adding: "These documents are necessary to become eligible for widow's allowances and governmental support."

In the final fighting of the long war last April and May, about 280,000 people had been displaced. They ended up in more than 40 camps, mainly in the Menik Farm site in the Vavuniya region.

The camps are now hosting less than one third of their initial population. Returns and the subsequent decongestion eased the pressure on the health, food and water services. IDPs continue to use the pass system to leave and re-enter the camps.

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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

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.

Tsunami Aftermath in Sri Lanka

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

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