The top United Nations humanitarian official, who just returned from a three-day visit to Sri Lanka, today praised the swift discharge in recent weeks of many of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) who had been confined to makeshift camps for several months.
By the time the Government declared an end to its military operations against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May, over 300,000 IDPs were in camps in northern Sri Lanka.
“When I was in Menik Farm [the largest IDP camp] at the end of last week, the number of people there was less than half of what it had been at the end of the hostilities,” Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes told reporters in New York
Mr. Holmes said that less than 135,000 IDPs now remain in that camp, with up to 3,000 people leaving every day and another 30,000 slated to return to Kilinochchi district – a former LTTE stronghold – on 1 December.
He said Government officials had confirmed that all the camps will be emptied by the end of January, and from the beginning of next month IDPs will be granted freedom to move in and out of the camps.
“Nevertheless, there are concerns about the quality of the returns process,” said Mr. Holmes, who also serves as the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator.
He raised questions over the amount of notice and preparation time given to IDPs and UN agencies on the ground before authorities direct the movement of people. There are also concerns over the speed of landmine clearance and quality of basic services in the areas where IDPs are returning.
The Government provides a cash payment of around $220, which is set to double, as well as roofing materials to help IDPs re-establish their lives and rebuild destroyed housing, “but there is not doubt it will be a difficult process,” he stated.
On his visit to Sri Lanka, Mr. Holmes spent two days visiting IDP camps in Jaffna and Vavuniya before heading to Colombo to meet with President Mahinda Rajapaksa and other Government officials, as well as a delegation from the Tamil National Alliance.