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UN agency in talks with Sri Lanka government, rebels on refugee returns

UN agency in talks with Sri Lanka government, rebels on refugee returns

Officials from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have been meeting with representatives of the Government of Sri Lanka and Tamil Tiger rebel leaders this week to determine a possible role in returning an initial group of over 100,000 internally displaced Tamils, the UN agency said today.

The meeting also discussed the future return of some 84,000 refugees living in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, spokesman Kris Janowski said in Geneva.

Last February, the Government and rebels from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) signed a ceasefire agreement brokered by Norway, raising hopes for the return of more than 1.5 million people uprooted by a civil war that lasted almost two decades.

More than 84,000 Tamils fled to neighbouring India. In addition, hundreds of thousands sought refuge 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 ceasefire agreement was signed, more than 230,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) have spontaneously returned home while about 1,000 have come back from India.

While welcoming the ceasefire agreement and subsequent accords on refugee returns as a breakthrough in one of South Asia's longest-running displacement crises, Mr. Janowski said UNHCR has repeatedly stressed that certain conditions must be created for the return to work.

“The issues that need to be addressed 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,” he said. “In addition to legislative steps there is a 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 those going back.”