Eight Sri Lankan refugees drown while returning home

Briefing Notes, 16 September 2008

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson William Spindler to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 16 September 2008, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

The UN refugee agency is deeply saddened by the death of eight Sri Lankan refugees who drowned last Friday while trying to return home by boat from southern India. We appeal to refugees to use official channels to return home in safety and dignity.

The group of 13 refugees had each paid 6,000 Indian rupees (about US$140) to a local boatman for the crossing late last week. They were reportedly on their way from Tamil Nadu in southern India to Talaimannar in northern Sri Lanka when the boat capsized on the high seas. The dead included four women and two children.

One of the survivors reportedly told local media that she preferred to cross illegally, as it was difficult to get the necessary clearances to leave.

More than 22,000 Sri Lankans have fled the conflict and sought asylum in India since 2006. Some 73,000 Sri Lankan refugees live in 117 camps scattered across southern India, mainly in Tamil Nadu.

UNHCR is facilitating voluntary repatriation only to the relatively calm parts of eastern Sri Lanka and helps refugees to make an informed choice to return home. The official channel for refugees to return to Sri Lanka is by air. Help with exit formalities in India and the airfare are provided to those refugees returning with UNHCR assistance. Only three refugees have availed this option so far this year.