The United Nations refugee agency and its partners are working to ensure that the hundreds of thousands of people who were uprooted by clashes between Sri Lankan Government forces and Tamil rebels are able to return to their homes.
Last month, the Government declared that its military operation against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was over, ending more than two decades of fighting.
Some 300,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) are living in 40 emergency shelter sites. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and its partners have erected nearly 9,000 emergency shelters and over 14,000 tents so far, distributed non-food items and carried out protection monitoring activities.
“We continue to work closely with the Government to better respond to the emergency – from central Government level to the local Government officials who are involved with direct assistance activities on the ground,” UNHCR spokesperson Ron Redmond told reporters in Geneva today.
Key priorities are to decongest and improve conditions in the camps, stabilize the population and prepare for their return home, he added.
“UNHCR’s ultimate objective is to support efforts to restore normalcy in the lives of this population by ensuring that they can return home as soon as conditions are in place,” such as security issues, de-mining and reconstructing damaged homes, the spokesperson said.
The agency is also in talks with the Government to ensure that IDPs living in camps can move around freely, Mr. Redmond said. “The Government has taken positive steps on this front by releasing categories of persons with special needs, including the elderly and pregnant women, to specialized institutions as well as reunifying families separated during flight.”
Further, the agency is encouraging authorities to wrap up screening as soon as possible and separate ex-combatants to allow civilians to move more freely in and out of camps, he noted.
Yesterday, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reiterated his strong concerns over “unacceptably high” civilian casualties in the conflict between the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE, while rejecting in the strongest terms any figure attributed to the UN.
Briefing the General Assembly on his recent visit to Sri Lanka and other travels, Mr. Ban said media reports alleging that some 20,000 civilians may have been killed during the last phase of the conflict “do not emanate from the UN and most are not consistent with the information at our disposal.”
He “categorically” rejected any suggestions that the UN has deliberately under-estimated any figures. “Let me also say, whatever the total, the casualties in the conflict were unacceptably high – as I have also said repeatedly,” he added.
Mr. Ban told the Assembly that during his 22-23 May visit to the South Asian island nation, he pressed the Government to heed international calls for an inquiry into alleged abuses and underscored the need for full accountability and transparency.
“Any inquiry conducted by the international community would require, first, the full cooperation of the host government, or, second, the support of the UN Member States, expressed through the Human Rights Council, the General Assembly or the Security Council,” he said.