Conditions "not conducive for refugees’ return" - UNHCR

[TamilNet, Thursday, 23 May 2002, 02:37 GMT]
Despite the voluntary return of 71,000 internally displaced people [IDP] to their homes this year, the United Nations’ leading refugee agency maintains that “conditions in Sri Lanka are not yet conducive to promote or facilitate large-scale, organised [displaced people’s] return or repatriation of refugees,” a UN working group said this week. The report said that major concerns remain regarding the risk of landmines and unexploded ordinance in both actual and potential areas of return.

The UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) “is monitoring closely the situation of spontaneous returns to ensure that they occur voluntarily, with safety and dignity,” the UN’s IDP working group said in its weekly bulletin.

More than 71,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), or roughly 14,200 families, have returned to their homes since the beginning of the year in Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu, Mannar, Vavuniya, Trincomalee and Batticaloa districts, the report said. More than 35,000 returnees in Jaffna District account for nearly half the total

“Precise week-by-week figures are not available, but indications are that the magnitude of return has clearly increased since the Feb. 23 cease-fire agreement,” the report said.

Despite the UNHCR having “reservations about promotion or facilitation of large-scale, organized repatriation at this stage” the agency has agreed to assist in the return of 16 extremely vulnerable refugees from south Indian camps for pressing humanitarian reasons, the report added.

Modalities of repatriation, as well as the level of assistance the government can provide, are two of the topics to be discussed at a meeting on voluntary repatriation that UNHCR is scheduling with the relevant government authorities.

More than 50 refugees crossed the Palk Straits in fishing boats from India to Mannar in April, the report said, adding that such spontaneous returns appear to be continuing.

The report says that the UNHCR’s “primary responsibility with relation to mine-action issues within the current context is to identify priority areas of potential IDP and refugee return where de-mining and mine awareness activities are required.”

UNICEF is said to be the lead UN agency on mine-risk education (MRE) and is to work closely in that capacity with UNHCR in areas where large numbers of people have returned, are returning or could potentially return, the report added.

The estimated 1.4 million pieces of live ammunition, including 86,700 anti-personnel mines, remaining in territory formerly controlled by the Sri Lanka Army are taking a long time to clear due to the lack of equipment and funding, according to the official in charge of clearing the unexploded ordnance.

The landmine clearing work in LTTE controlled areas is currently being funded solely by the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation, Mr Yogan, coordinator of the Humanitarian Landmine Clearance Section told reporters last week. He noted that elsewhere in the world, such projects received support from United Nations agencies.


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