Sri Lanka government assures UNHCR of full engagement in future moves to return IDPs
GENEVA, March 16 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency said it had received renewed assurances on Friday from the Sri Lankan government that UNHCR will now be fully engaged in any further moves to return internally displaced people (IDPs) to their home areas.
The announcement followed disturbing reports yesterday that scores of people had been forcibly returned by authorities in eastern Sri Lanka to return to their places of origin in the Vaharai and Trincomalee areas despite serious concerns over the security situation there.
"Our office in Colombo conveyed our concerns to the government over those reported forcible returns and this morning was assured that UNHCR would in future be fully engaged in the process to ensure that any returns are voluntary and safe," UNHCR's chief spokesman, Ron Redmond, told reporters in Geneva on Friday.
He said UNHCR had received reports on Thursday of a stepped-up police presence in eastern Sri Lanka's Batticaloa district, where more than 152,000 people are registered as internally displaced following several successive population movements in recent months.
The reports said the police presence was especially heavy around displacement sites, and that scores of people had been ordered onto buses in at least 10 of those sites. According to one of the reports, women and children at one site were forced to board buses despite pleas that they could not leave while their husbands were still at work and children at school.
The reported incidents followed earlier government assurances to UNHCR that return movements would be voluntary and that the refugee agency would be able to accompany the process.
"However, reports indicate this has not been the case and we also are disturbed by statements attributed to local authorities that all assistance may be stopped if internally displaced people remain in Batticaloa and that the government would not be able to guarantee their safety," Redmond said.
"UNHCR again urges that all return movements are voluntary, without undue pressure or duress. And we also remind all parties to the conflict of their obligations under international human rights and humanitarian law to protect civilians from harm and to guarantee their safety," he added.
Many of the returnees UNHCR has been able to interview to date have expressed serious reservations about the security situation in their areas of origin, especially Trincomalee and parts of Batticaloa district.
Redmond said UNHCR believed that the displaced did not have sufficient information to make a decision on return. The agency plans to launch a campaign to disseminate information on the rights of the internally displaced, including the right to be protected against forcible return to any place where life, safety, liberty and/or health would be at risk.
UNHCR is currently engaged in responding to the enormous challenges and urgent needs of the 152,000 people displaced in Batticaloa, as well as other segments of displaced populations elsewhere in the country. UNHCR estimates some 465,000 people are displaced by the conflict in Sri Lanka, including 223,000 people who have fled their homes since the violence flared in April last year.