UNHCR’s involvement in Sri Lanka dates back to 1987 when the organisation was invited by the Sri Lankan Government to facilitate large scale repatriation of Sri Lankan refugees from India.

In 1990, just as its activities were to wind down, UNHCR was requested to expand its protection and assistance to include not only the refugees immediately under its mandate, but also the people displaced internally by the abrupt resumption of Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict. This extended role was endorsed by the UN Secretary General in 1991, reaffirmed in 1997 and again confirmed in 2002 in the Government of Sri Lanka and the United Nation’s “Joint Strategy to Meet the Immediate Needs of Returned IDPs”.

In 2003, following years of advocacy to address loop holes in earlier legislation, UNHCR helped 190,000 Hill Tamils gain Sri Lankan citizenship after the Government passed the Grant of Citizenship to Persons of Indian Origin.  A smaller scale campaign was carried out in 2004 for Hill Tamils displaced to the North and East in the early 1980s.  UNHCR’s statelessness work continues in Sri Lanka with a gap analysis of interventions.

In December 2004, UNHCR responded immediately to the needs of people displaced by the tsunami – an exceptional decision based on the scale of the disaster and the organisation’s capacity, experience, presence and expertise in Sri Lanka.

Relief distributions of plastic sheeting, tents and kitchen sets, were followed by UNHCR constructing 4,500 temporary shelters.  As National Lead Agency in Tsunami Transitional Shelter, UNHCR also co-ordinated and supported the Government’s Transitional Shelter Project (TAP) and more than 100 implementing organisations, to ensure that the required 55,000 transitional shelters were constructed by end-2005.  In November 2005, UNHCR handed over this role to the Government of Sri Lanka, signalling the end to its involvement in tsunami-focused activities.

While the tsunami necessitated an immediate response and focused considerable attention on the tsunami displaced, UNHCR stands firmly by the principle of equity for all internally displaced persons (IDPs).  UNHCR’s work from 2006 to 2016 focused on the needs of the conflict displaced as the conflict intensified and finally armed conflict ended in May 2009 leading into efforts to resolve post conflict displacement issues. UNHCR continued to provide assistance and advocate on protection and durable solutions for remaining IDPs and returning refugees. 

The UN Refugee Agency’s current work in Sri Lanka is multi-faceted, ranging in scope from providing registration, protection, refugee status determination (RSD) and striving for durable solutions for third country nationals seeking asylum in Sri Lanka, providing reintegration assistance to refugee returnees and facilitating the furtherance of durable solutions for the displaced by supporting the National Policy on Durable Solutions, working on housing, land and property issues as well as providing catalytic support to enable returning communities to access their lands.