Returns to Sri Lanka of individuals intercepted at sea

Press Releases, 7 July 2014

UNHCR is deeply concerned by Australia's announcement today that it has returned some 41 asylum-seekers to Sri Lanka after having intercepted them at sea, as well as the fate of a further 153 asylum-seekers of Sri Lankan origin who are now subject to an Australian High Court injunction on their return.

UNHCR understands that "enhanced screening procedures" were used as a basis for determining whether the 41 individuals involved raised claims for protection which required further consideration. Without further information UNHCR is not in a position, at this time, to confirm whether they were in accordance with international law. UNHCR has previously made known its concerns to Australia about its enhanced screening procedures and their non- compliance with international law.

UNHCR's experience over the years with shipboard processing has generally not been positive. Such an environment would rarely afford an appropriate venue for a fair procedure.

The principle of non-refoulement (the prohibition on return to threats to life or freedom) in the 1951 Refugee Convention and more broadly under customary international law is clear: it applies wherever an asylum-seeker is found and to whatever manner the expulsion or return is carried out, including during interception and other sea operations.

UNHCR does not object to the returns of persons properly found not to be in need of international protection, but considers anyone claiming asylum has a right to have their case properly assessed by qualified personnel in accordance with the necessary procedural and legal safeguards.

For further information, please contact:

  • In Geneva, Babar Baloch on mobile +41 79 557 9106
  • In Canberra, Lynne Minion on mobile +61 424 545 569
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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

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

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Sri Lanka: Home At Last

Grace Selvarani has lived in a refugee camp in India for the past two decades. Today, the Sri Lankan is delighted to be going back home by boat with more than 40 other refugees.
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India/Sri Lanka: A Ferry Ride Home

For the first time in many years, Sri Lankan refugees are returning home from India by ferry.
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Sri Lanka: Time to Return

A year after the end of the long civil war in Sir Lanka, the government is slowly helping the internally displaced to return home.