UNHCR in talks on Sri Lankans uprooted by civil war
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, Jan 16 (UNHCR) - UNHCR officials have been meeting with Sri Lankan government representatives and Tamil Tiger rebel leaders this week to determine the UN refugee agency's possible role in returning an initial group of over 100,000 internally displaced Tamils in Sri Lanka. They also discussed the future return of some 84,000 residual refugees living in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
During the meeting held in the rebel-controlled town of Kilinichchi, 275 km north of Colombo, the parties sought UNHCR's advice on how to handle the accelerated return of Tamils to the Jaffna peninsula, agreed during a meeting in Thailand earlier this month.
Last February, the Sri Lankan government and rebels from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), better known as the Tamil Tigers, 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.
In the course of the conflict, 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 have returned home while about 1,000 have come back from India.
UNHCR officials have repeatedly hailed the cease-fire agreement and subsequent accords on refugee returns as a breakthrough in one of South Asia's longest-running displacement crises. But they also cautioned that conditions must be created for the uprooted to be able to return to their homes in safety.
The UN refugee agency listed a number of issues that need to be addressed. They 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, UNHCR officials also emphasised the 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 people returning to rural areas.