UNHCR helps first group of Sri Lankan refugees return by ferry from India

News Stories, 12 October 2011

© UNHCR/Amarasinghe
Sri Lankan refugees prepare to disembark earlier today from the ferry that brought them from India to Colombo.

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, October 12 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency on Wednesday began repatriating Sri Lankan refugees from southern India by ferry, adding a new dimension to its voluntary return programme for civilians who fled the island nation before a long conflict ended in 2009.

A first group of 37 refugees (15 families) arrived by commercial ferry in Colombo on Wednesday morning after an overnight voyage from Tuticorin in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. They were accompanied by three UNHCR staff.

"The start of returns by sea is significant as refugees in camps in India have been telling us they want to return by ferry so they can bring more of their household possessions home with them," said UNHCR's Representative in Sri Lanka Michael Zwack.

By the end of September, UNHCR had helped 1,493 Sri Lankan refugees (466 families) return home to the north and east. All came back by air. The returns are mainly from India (1,448) while small numbers have also come back from Malaysia, Georgia and the Caribbean island of St. Lucia. Last year, a total of 2,054 Sri Lankan refugees returned home compared to 800 the previous year.

"Refugees have been returning steadily in small and increasing numbers to Sri Lanka. It's difficult to predict how many more will opt to return with the ferry route now open. But, what is important is that if they do want to return home and bring many of their possessions they now have that opportunity," Zwack said.

All the refugees returning today have been living in some of the 112 refugee camps in Tamil Nadu, India. Among the first arrivals by ferry were some refugees returning after more than two decades in India.

UNHCR's Zwack was present at the Colombo port to welcome the returnees, along with the Minister of Economic Development Basil Rajapaksa and Deputy Minister of Resettlement Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan.

Most refugees have been returning to the eastern district of Trincomalee, followed by Mannar, Vavuniya and Jaffna in Sri Lanka's north. Some people are also returning to the Kilinochchi, Colombo, Batticaloa, Kandy, Ampara, Matale and Puttalam areas.

"The refugees, like the tens of thousands of internally displaced people who have returned home recently, face challenges in re-establishing themselves. Earning a living and getting decent shelter are two of the things returned refugees tell us are their greatest concerns," Zwack said.

Sri Lankan refugees returning under UNHCR's voluntary repatriation programme receive a standard reintegration grant as a first step towards helping them restart their lives. Once at their destination in Sri Lanka, these returnees can approach one of UNHCR's five offices in the north and east to obtain a kit of basic household supplies.

UNHCR carries out regular monitoring and seeks to ensure that returnees receive landmine awareness classes and are included in the food ration lists and become considered as beneficiaries of government, UN and other projects under way to rebuild the lives of Sri Lankans in the north and east of the country.

In addition, UNHCR refers people with special needs to specialized institutions and those in need of legal counselling to the relevant government authority or other organizations that can provide targeted assistance.

Sri Lankan refugees abroad who wish to return home can approach the closest UNHCR office for assistance in their country of asylum.

UNHCR's most recent statistics, gathered from governments, show that at the end of 2010 there were some 140,000 Sri Lankan refugees in 65 countries, with a majority almost 70,000 in 112 refugee camps and another 32,000 living outside camps in Tamil Nadu. The other main countries with Sri Lankan refugees are France, Canada, Germany, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Australia, Malaysia, the United States and Italy.




UNHCR country pages


UNHCR works with the country of origin and host countries to help refugees return home.

Return to Swat Valley

Thousands of displaced Pakistanis board buses and trucks to return home, but many remain in camps for fear of being displaced again.

Thousands of families displaced by violence in north-west Pakistan's Swat Valley and surrounding areas are returning home under a government-sponsored repatriation programme. Most cited positive reports about the security situation in their home areas as well as the unbearable heat in the camps as key factors behind their decision to return. At the same time, many people are not yet ready to go back home. They worry about their safety and the lack of access to basic services and food back in Swat. Others, whose homes were destroyed during the conflict, are worried about finding accommodation. UNHCR continues to monitor people's willingness to return home while advocating for returns to take place in safety and dignity. The UN refugee agency will provide support for the transport of vulnerable people wishing to return, and continue to distribute relief items to the displaced while assessing the emergency shelter needs of returnees. More than 2 million people have been displaced since early May in north-west Pakistan. Some 260,000 found shelter in camps, but the vast majority have been staying with host families or in rented homes or school buildings.

Return to Swat Valley

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Tanzanian refugees return to Zanzibar

Tsunami Aftermath in Sri Lanka

Shortly after the tsunami hit Sri Lanka, killing over 30,000 people and displacing nearly 800,000, UNHCR was asked to take a lead role in providing transitional shelter – bridging the gap between emergency tents and the construction of permanent homes. The refugee agency is not normally involved in natural disasters, but lent its support to the effort because of the scale of the devastation and because many of the tsunami-affected people were also displaced by the conflict.

Since the 26 December 2004 tsunami, UNHCR has helped in the coordination and construction of over 55,000 transitional shelters and has directly constructed, through its partners, 4,500 shelters in Jaffna in the north, and Ampara District in the east. These efforts are helping some 20,000 people rebuild their lives.

On 15 November, 2005, UNHCR completed its post-tsunami shelter role and formally handed over responsibility for the shelter sector to the Sri Lankan government. Now, UNHCR is returning its full focus to its pre-tsunami work of providing assistance to people internally displaced by the conflict, and refugees repatriating from India.

Tsunami Aftermath in Sri Lanka

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