UNHCR starts to scale back in eastern Sri Lanka, closing Batticaloa office
BATTICALOA, Sri Lanka, June 28 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency is starting to scale back its operations to help internally displaced people in eastern Sri Lanka and is closing its office in Batticaloa this week.
"As the majority of internally displaced people in Batticaloa District over the last eight years have now returned to their places of origin and have been receiving protection and assistance from UNHCR, we are now able to start phasing down our operations," said UNHCR Representative in Sri Lanka Michael Zwack.
UNHCR has been operating out of Batticaloa since 2002, assisting waves of people displaced by various phases of the prolonged conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) - commonly known as the Tamil Tigers - and also the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004.
During the peak of the conflict, 160,000 people were displaced from within Batticaloa and the district also received 140,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) from other locations in the east, particularly in 2006 from Trincomalee District further north.
The conflict in the east ended in 2007, and displaced people starting returning to their homes with assistance from UNHCR and the government. In the north, the conflict ended in May 2009 and the process of return is continuing.
There are still 90 families (433 individuals) displaced in Batticaloa and 507 families (1,756 people) displaced in the neighbouring district of Ampara, waiting for demining activities to finish before they can safely return home. It is expected that they will be able to return within the next couple of months.
As these people will be needing shelter materials and non-food items such as tools, jerry cans and kitchen sets when they return, UNHCR will maintain a small presence in Batticaloa until the end of the year to assist them. It will then continue protection monitoring from its Trincomalee office. The protection work is aimed at ensuring the sustainability of the return.
As part of its protection work in Batticaloa and Ampara, UNHCR has tried to find solutions to issues that affect the well-being of displaced people including liaising with the relevant government agencies, military and police. This included raising awareness of the community, medical, social service authorities and police about gender-based violence. Special women and children referral desks have been set up at police stations to help and support victims.
A joint UN Development Programme/UNHCR "Access to Justice" project, in conjunction with the national Human Rights Commission, will continue to provide legal aid to returnees - both IDPs and refugees - for issues such as land and property and documentation as well as strengthening the capacity of national legal aid providers. The project also includes continued awareness raising of the community on gender-based violence issues and improved coordination between the various service providers.
As part of its efforts to provide community support to areas which had suffered severe displacement, UNHCR carried out some quick impact projects, including rehabilitating former IDP sites, improving drainage and channel clearance, building agricultural wells, vocational training, livelihood support such as providing seeds, small business support and rehabilitating community buildings. Earlier this month it opened a new community library in Iralaikulam village in the Chenkalady area - a former LTTE stronghold.
"In August last year, 437 displaced families returned to this area which was emptied during the conflict," explained the head of UNHCR's Batticaloa office, Francis Muwonge. "The people asked us to rebuild their library which was destroyed by the natural elements and wild elephants in their absence. The library was built on the foundations of the old building, but it's much bigger and will serve a community of 15 villages and five schools in the surrounding area," said Muwonge, who attended the colourful opening ceremony last week.
Solar lamps, provided by UNHCR as a security measure, also help to protect the library and village from visits by wild elephants which can cause considerable destruction.
UNHCR's current focus is on assisting returnees to the north of Sri Lanka with some 54,000 still displaced in emergency sites. UNHCR has been operating in Sri Lanka since 1987, with offices in Colombo, Jaffna, Vavuniya, Mannar and Trincomalee.
By Jennifer Pagonis in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka