Sri Lanka: Return starts of displaced people in West Batticaloa
Yesterday, (Monday) the Sri Lankan government launched the return of tens of thousands of displaced civilians to West Batticaloa in eastern Sri Lanka - an area that until recently was under rebel LTTE-control. More than 90,000 people, who were displaced in Batticaloa district after heavy fighting between government forces and the LTTE during February, are expected to move back to their places of origin in the coming months. UNHCR is fully involved in the return process.
Our staff monitoring the situation on the ground say the majority of people are eager to return home, the returns are voluntary and in line with international protection standards. However, we do caution that attention should be given to categories of people with special needs and urge the government to continue the step-by-step phased approach, upholding international standards and ensuring that return will continue to be voluntary under any circumstances and at all times. UNHCR will continue to monitor the returns and report directly to the government on any problems regarding the voluntariness and any deviation from the civilian characteristics of the move.
Starting Wednesday, UN agencies will be given full access to West Batticaloa to provide support to the returnees. We are also calling on the government to speed up access for other international aid agencies to the villages in West Batticaloa so they can carry out assistance programmes aimed at reintegration and sustaining return.
The return to West Batticaloa is planned to take place in three phases. Under the initial phase, more than 34,000 people will be transported by bus to their villages of origin in the southern part of West Batticaloa in the next two weeks.
Local government officials are registering the returnees and issuing them with identity documents to ensure freedom of movement. Dry rations are also provided by the government for one week at the point of departure and a one month ration will be made available on return to the villages.
An advanced UN team, including UNHCR, carried out a preliminary joint assessment of West Batticaloa (phase 1 area). It seems that the conflict has had a relatively low level of impact in the area.
The UNHCR representative in Sri Lanka is in Batticaloa to see the first movements and talk with senior government officials and local authorities on return and reintegration plans. There is a need for a more comprehensive understanding of what kind of assistance is required in the return areas to help restore essential services and boost livelihood opportunities in the area. UNHCR together with its partners is looking at possible reintegration packages and is calling on the international community to help with assistance, as well as asking the government to expedite its own rehabilitation plan for the return areas.