TN refugee camps becoming empty as more Tamils return home


This year, says top Colombo-based UNHCR official Michael Zwack, more refugees will return voluntarily to the Northern Province, where they’ll receive assistance from the agency to settle down.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Close on the heels of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s criticism of Sri Lanka’s rehabilitation, reconstruction and re-settlement efforts in the post-war era, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says that Sri Lankan Tamil refugees living in South India are keen to return home.

"The number of refugees wanting to return home since the end of the conflict in 2009 is clearly on the increase; in response, we have streamlined our procedures and introduced some new measures to make the return process quicker and easier," said the Colombo-based UNHCR representative Michael Zwack. 

He expects more refugees to voluntarily return this year.

Zwack said that the majority of the returnees would come home with the agency’s help.

A senior government official engaged in northern rehabilitation told The Island the UN statement couldn’t have come at a better time. According to him, the UN Refugee Agency has publicly acknowledged that the situation in the Northern and Eastern provinces is getting better and there is no basis for concerns expressed by those sympathetic towards the LTTE.

Alleging that the Sri Lankan government was ‘not doing enough’" for Tamils, Rahul Gandhi on Dec. 22 said he would ensure that justice was done.

"We are concerned that enough is not being done for Sri Lankan Tamils by the government there," Gandhi said during a brief interaction with a group of intellectuals in Chennai.

Gandhi was quoted as saying that he would take up the matter with ‘appropriate persons’ at the Centre and see that Sri Lankan Tamils got justice.

The UNHCR said on Wednesday (Jan. 5) that last year 2,054 Sri Lankans had returned to the country, though only 843 came back in 2009. "Most of the returnees came from refugee camps in Tamil Nadu, with several from other countries, such as Malaysia.  In addition to these assisted returns, another 2,742 Sri Lankan refugees, who had returned on their own, approached UNHCR’s offices in the North for assistance."

Navy headquarters said troops patrolling north-western seas had brought many Tamil families returning to NE on their own last year.

Under UNHCR’s voluntary repatriation assistance, refugees are provided with air tickets to return home from India or other country of asylum and they are assisted in documentation issues. "Starting January 1, 2011, refugees returning under UNHCR’s programme will also receive a standard reintegration grant to help them restart their lives," the agency said.

It said: "UNHCR meets returning refugees at the airport in Colombo and provides them with a modest transport grant to help them get back to their homes.

Once home, they can approach UNHCR offices in the north to get a kit of basic household supplies. This assistance is only for refugees returning through UNHCR’s facilitated programme." 

According to the latest Indian government figures, as of 1 November 2010, there are 70,354 Sri Lankan refugees living in some 112 camps in Tamil Nadu and 32,467 living outside the camps. In total there are 146,098 Sri Lankan registered refugees in 64 countries including India, France, Canada, Germany, the UK, Switzerland, Malaysia, Australia, the United States and Italy."

Asked whether the UNHCR believed those categorised as registered refugees in the West, too, could return as there was no reason for them to be accommodated there any longer, the agency’s External Relations Assistant Sulakshani Perera told The Island: "The decision of Sri Lankan refugees  to return, whichever country they are in, should be completely voluntary and fully informed. We are assisting Sri Lankan refugees who want to return home from India or other countries."  

Declining to comment on the UNHCR’s involvement in Canada, where the government is under pressure to accommodate more Sri Lankan refugees, Perera said that query should be directed to UNHCR office in Ottawa.

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