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UNHCR encouraged by Canada's handling of Tamil boat people case

Briefing Notes, 17 August 2010

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 17 August 2010, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR continues to follow the developing situation of 490 Sri Lankan nationals of Tamil origin, former passengers of the cargo ship MV Sun Sea which docked at Vancouver Island in British Columbia last Friday. According to our staff in British Columbia, all 490 passengers have claimed asylum.

Based on what we have seen thus far, we commend the exemplary work of the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) in coordinating the arrival and reception of the MV Sun Sea passengers. The reception site was well designed, and needs in terms of information gathering, food and water have been well anticipated. In addition, the priorities for safe disembarkation of the ship were clearly defined with medical needs topping the list for those on board, who include men, women and children.

UNHCR supports the important work of law enforcement agencies in combating human smuggling, an issue that has received much attention in relation to the MV Sun Sea case. It is nonetheless important to recognize that while refugees and migrants might use the same means of transportation, sometimes illegal, refugees are a distinct group with critical protection needs. It is not a crime to seek asylum.

UNHCR recognizes the considerable challenges that disembarkation and the processing of people from MV Sun Sea will entail. We will be following these activities on an ad-hoc basis to help compliance with the relevant provisions for treatment of persons seeking asylum and refugee status.

In the case of Sri Lanka, UNHCR has recently issued revised guidelines to assist decision-makers in reviewing claims to asylum. Those guidelines include our recommendation that in light of the improved security situation since the end of Sri Lanka's conflict in May 2009, claims by asylum seekers from that country should be considered on their individual merits rather than on a group basis.

According to UNHCR's most recent statistics, there are a total of 146,098 Sri Lanka refugees in 64 countries. India (73,269), France (20,464), Canada (19,143), Germany (12,248), United Kingdom (8,615), Switzerland (2,836), Malaysia (2,132), Australia (2,070), United States (1,561) and Italy (964) are the top 10 countries hosting Sri Lankan refugees. There are also 7,562 Sri Lankan asylum seekers known to UNHCR in 57 countries. The top ten countries hosting Sri Lankan asylum-seekers are: Switzerland, Malaysia, Canada, Germany, Norway, Thailand, US, Netherlands, Japan and Australia. Last year, 34,000 new asylum seekers submitted their claims in Canada.

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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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