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Sri Lanka: discussions on IDP and refugee returns

Briefing notes

Sri Lanka: discussions on IDP and refugee returns

17 January 2003

UNHCR officials have been meeting with Sri Lankan government representatives and Tamil Tiger rebel leaders this week to determine our possible role in returning an initial group of over 100,000 internally displaced Tamils in Sri Lanka. Also discussed during the meeting, held in the rebel-controlled town of Kilinochchi, 275 km north of Colombo, was the future return of some 84,000 refugees living in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Last February, the Sri Lankan government and rebels from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) signed a cease-fire agreement brokered by Norway. The accord raised hopes for the return of more than 1.5 million people uprooted by a civil war that lasted almost two decades.

More than 84,000 Tamils fled to neighbouring India. In addition, hundreds of thousands sought refugee in Europe and North America, becoming one of the western world's largest groups of asylum seekers. The conflict also displaced 800,000 Sri Lankan Tamils within their own country. Since the cease-fire agreement was signed, more than 230,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) have spontaneously returned home while about 1,000 have come back from India.

UNHCR has welcomed the cease-fire agreement and subsequent accords on refugee returns as a breakthrough in one of South Asia's longest-running displacement crises, but have we have repeatedly stressed that certain conditions must be created for the return to work.

The issues that need to be addressed include property restitution, the establishment of independent administrative and police systems in areas of return, and the issuance of identity documents to those going back. In addition to legislative steps there is a need to repair Sri Lanka's physical infrastructure that had been shattered by the war and to remove landmines that pose a lethal danger to those going back.