After reports that the Sri Lankan authorities have forcibly returned many internally displaced people (IDPs) who fled fighting, the United Nations refugee agency today said that it had received the Government’s assurances that the agency will be “fully engaged” in any future returns to ensure that they are both voluntary and safe.
Yesterday, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) received disturbing reports of increased police presence around displacement sites in the eastern Batticaloa district, where more than 150,000 IDPs reside, spokesperson Ron Redmond told a press briefing in Geneva.
The highest number of IDPs in the country are sheltered in the district, where many continue to flee the fighting between the Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which has been going on for over 20 years despite a ceasefire signed in 2002.
“According to one of the reports, women and children at one site were forced to board buses despite pleas that they couldn’t leave while their husbands were still at work and children at school,” Mr. Redmond said.
The UNHCR office in Colombo, the capital, conveyed its concerns over the alleged returns to the Government, which responded positively this morning, Mr. Redmond said.
These reports come on the heels of earlier Government assurances that UNHCR would be able to participate in returns, all of which would be voluntary, he noted.
“However, reports indicate that 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,” he added.
Many returnees interviewed by UNHCR, which advocates only voluntary return movements, has voiced serious concern over the security situation in their places of origin, and the agency believes returnees are currently not armed with the necessary information to make decisions on whether to make the journey home.
To this end, Mr. Redmond said that UNHCR will shortly launch a campaign to inform people of the rights of IDPs as set forth in the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, including the right to be protected against forcible return to any place where their life, safety, liberty or health would be at risk.