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Sri Lanka: UN refugee agency assists return of thousands who fled conflict zone

Sri Lanka: UN refugee agency assists return of thousands who fled conflict zone

The United Nations refugee agency announced today that it had begun helping Sri Lanka return over 90,000 displaced civilians who had fled heavy fighting in February between Government and rebel troops.

The return of the villagers, who left West Batticaloa in the eastern part of the island as the Government fought to dislodge the forces of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), appears to be voluntary, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

“Our staff monitoring the situation on the ground say the majority of people are eager to return home, the returns are voluntary and in line with international protection standards,” UNHCR spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis said in Geneva.

However, she cautioned that attention must be given to people with special needs and urged the Government to continue the step-by-step phased approach, upholding international standards and ensuring that returns will continue to be voluntary under any circumstances and at all times.

“UNHCR will continue to monitor the returns and report directly to the government on any problems regarding the voluntariness and any deviation from the civilian characteristics of the move,” she said, calling on the Government to speed up access for all international aid agencies to the region so they can carry out assistance programmes.

Starting Wednesday, UN agencies will be given full access to West Batticaloa to provide support to the returnees, she noted, and the UNHCR representative is already on the ground to observe the first movements and speak with officials about reintegration plans.

Local government officials are registering the returnees and issuing them with identity documents and are providing rations both at the point of departure and on return to the villages, according to UNHCR.

Ms. Pagonis added that there is a need for a more comprehensive understanding of what kind of assistance is required in the return areas to help restore essential services and boost livelihood opportunities.

“UNHCR together with its partners is looking at possible reintegration packages and is calling on the international community to help with assistance, as well as asking the government to expedite its own rehabilitation plan for the return areas,” she said.