1 Refugee Longing for Home: Sri Lankans separated by a body of water

Telling the Human Story, 13 July 2011

© UNHCR/S.Perera
Selliah Arumugam is the 1,000th Sri Lankan refugee to return home with the help of UNHCR this year. He and his family left Sri Lanka in 2006 due to the conflict and spent the last five years in a camp in Tamil Nadu, India.

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, July 13 (UNHCR) Selliah Arumugam walked through the gates at the bustling Bandaranaike International Airport in Colombo, his wife and four children in tow. With a big smile on his face, the 42-year-old pushed a metal cart piled high with their belongings into the arrival lounge.

Selliah is the 1,000th Sri Lankan refugee to return home this year with help from the UN refugee agency. Originally from the north-western coastal district of Mannar, the Arumugam family fled the deteriorating security situation in their village in August 2006. Selliah recalled the difficult journey they made five years ago across the Palk Strait: "We waited until dark and then took a boat with many others to India. The seas were rough and my youngest child was just three years old."

In India, they lived in Okkur camp in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. "Life was not easy, but what else could we do? So we stayed there, hoping that one day we would be able to return to our lands," he said.

This is a story shared by many Sri Lankan refugees. At the end of last year, there were said to be some 141,000 of them around the world, the majority in Tamil Nadu.

More than two years after the 26-year civil conflict ended, the pace of returns is picking up. UNHCR is helping a growing number of Sri Lankan refugees to return to their villages in the north and east. Most of the returns are taking place from refugee camps in Tamil Nadu, with smaller numbers from countries such as Malaysia, Georgia and the Caribbean island of St. Lucia. Major areas of return include Trincomalee, Mannar, Vavuniya and Jaffna. Smaller numbers are returning to Kilinochchi, Batticaloa, Ampara and Colombo.

"The number of refugees arriving back home in Sri Lanka is rising slowly and could increase further over the next half year with the recent launch of the Tuticorin-Colombo ferry service," said Michael Zwack, UNHCR's Representative in Sri Lanka. Tuticorin is a port on the south-eastern coast of Tamil Nadu state.

Sri Lankan refugees interested in voluntary repatriation can approach the nearest UNHCR office in their country of asylum. Once the request is processed, they are given an air ticket to Sri Lanka and are helped to obtain relevant travel documents. In Sri Lanka, UNHCR staff meet returnees at the airport and provide them with a modest transport grant to help them make their way home.

Selliah and other returnees under UNHCR's voluntary repatriation programme are also given a standard reintegration grant, as a first step towards helping them restart their lives. When they reach their final destination in Sri Lanka, they can approach one of UNHCR's five offices in the north and east to obtain a kit of basic household supplies, including plastic mats, mosquito nets, bed sheets, buckets and kitchen sets.

In villages of return, UNHCR carries out regular monitoring and seeks to ensure that returnees receive mine risk education and are included on food ration lists. The agency refers people with special needs such as the the disabled and the elderly to specialized institutions. They also point returnees in need of legal counselling towards the relevant government authority or other organizations that can provide targeted assistance.

After collecting his UNHCR grants in Colombo, Selliah gathered his family and set off for their village in Mannar. "I'm really looking forward to going home, seeing my relatives and starting up my life," he said. "I'm a paddy farmer by profession, so I will go back to doing that. After all, it is what I know."

Some 2,800 Sri Lankan refugees in India and beyond have expressed an interest in returning home in the near future. UNHCR believes that 1 Refugee Longing for Home is Too Many, and stands ready to help people like Selliah to achieve their dream.

By Sulakshani Perera in Colombo, Sri Lanka




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Returnees in Myanmar

During the early 1990s, more than 250,000 Rohingya Muslims fled across the border into Bangladesh, citing human rights abuses by Myanmar's military government. In exile, refugees received shelter and assistance in 20 camps in the Cox's Bazaar region of Bangladesh. More than 230,000 of the Rohingya Muslims have returned since 1992, but about 22,000 still live in camps in Bangladesh. To promote stability in returnee communities in Myanmar and to help this group of re-integrate into their country, UNHCR and its partner agencies provide monitors to insure the protection and safety of the returnees as well as vocational training, income generation schemes, adult literacy programs and primary education.

Returnees in Myanmar

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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