Sri Lanka: returns and shelter grants restart

Briefing Notes, 27 April 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 27 April 2010, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

We welcome last week's resumption of Government-led return movements in northern Sri Lanka, following a three week temporary pause due to parliamentary elections, the Sinhala holiday and Tamil New Year. Following this, some 7,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) have returned to the districts of Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu.

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. To assist them to rebuild their lives, we are providing each returning family with a shelter cash grant of 25,000 rupees ($US 220 ) through the state Bank of Ceylon. More than 40,000 families had already received the cash grant by March.

In the past month we were forced to temporarily suspend this assistance due a funding shortfall, but thanks to recent generous contributions by donors, UNHCR 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 already returned to their homes but have not yet received the grant due to the suspension. There are still some 25,000 families (approx. 82,000 people) in the camps or with the host families, mainly in the Menik Farm area 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.

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 with the grant money, which allows them to access services, transport goods and re-establish social networks. Some families may also use the money to pay for labor for land clearance or invest it in starting up small businesses.

Meanwhile, we continue to distribute other relief aid to returnees such as plastic mats, mosquito nets, clothing, and jungle clearing tools. Mine clearing efforts are ongoing as well government's reconstruction of infrastructure such as roads, buildings and bridges damaged in the war. The 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 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. These documents are necessary to become eligible for widow's allowances and governmental support.

At the height of the conflict in April and May last year, about 280,000 people had been displaced. They were staying in more than 40 camps, mainly in the Menik Farm site in the Vavuniya region. The camps, which used to be overcrowded, 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.