Sri Lanka: Government assures UNHCR involvement in future IDP return
UNHCR received renewed assurances today from the Sri Lankan government that we will now be fully engaged in any further moves to return internally displaced people (IDPs) following disturbing reports yesterday that scores had been forcibly returned by authorities in the country's east. The reports received by UNHCR said that the displaced people had been sent back to their places of origin in Vaharai and Trincomalee despite serious concerns over the security situation there.
Our office in Colombo conveyed our concerns to the government over those reported forcible returns and this morning was assured that UNHCR would in future be fully engaged in the process to ensure that any returns are voluntary and safe.
UNHCR received reports yesterday of a stepped-up police presence in Batticaloa district, where over 152,000 people are registered as internally displaced following several successive population movements in recent months. Reports say the police presence was especially heavy around displacement sites, and that in at least 10 of those sites, scores of people had been ordered onto buses. According to one of the reports, women and children at one site were forced to board buses despite pleas that they couldn't leave while their husbands were still at work and children at school.
The reported incidents followed earlier government assurances to UNHCR that return movements will be voluntary and that UNHCR would be able to accompany the process. However, reports indicate this has not been the case and we also are disturbed by statements attributed to local authorities that all assistance may be stopped if internally displaced people remain in Batticaloa and that the government would not be able to guarantee their safety.
UNHCR again urges that all return movements are voluntary, without undue pressure or duress. And we also remind all parties to the conflict of their obligations under international human rights and humanitarian law to protect civilians from harm and to guarantee their safety.
Many of the returnees UNHCR has been able to interview to date have expressed serious reservations about the security situation in their areas of origin, especially Trincomalee and parts of Batticaloa district.
UNHCR believes that the displaced do not have sufficient information to make a decision on return. We plan to launch a campaign to disseminate information on the rights of the internally displaced as stated in the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, which include the right to be protected against forcible return to any place where life, safety, liberty and/or health would be at risk.
UNHCR is currently engaged in responding to the enormous challenges and urgent needs of the 152,000 people displaced in Batticaloa, as well as other segments of displaced populations elsewhere in the country.