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Sri Lanka's displacement chapter nears end with closure of Menik Farm

News Stories, 27 September 2012

© UNHCR/S.Perera
Manikkarasan Nathan (second from left) and his family finally return home back after leaving Menik Farm camp.

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, September 27 (UNHCR) Menik Farm, once the world's largest camp for internally displaced people (IDP), closed this week, bringing Sri Lanka's population displacement crisis closer to final resolution three years after the civil war ended.

"The closure of the camp is a significant step towards ending displacement in Sri Lanka, but there are still people displaced in different situations who need to find a solution," said Michael Zwack, UNHCR's representative in Sri Lanka.

The government opened the 700-hectare Menik Farm in northern Sri Lanka's Vavuniya district as an IDP site in 2009 and, at its peak, later that year, it held 225,000 people. When it was shut down on Monday, there were just 346 people left.

But this last group of people was not allowed to return to their homes in the Kepapilavu area of north-eastern Sri Lanka's Mullaitivu district because their land is being occupied by the military. They were, instead, relocated on state-owned land and they must wait to hear if they will be able to return home or, if not, whether they will receive compensation.

While acknowledging government efforts to resolve the issue, Zwack stressed that allowing people to settle anywhere in the country, and resolving legal ownership of land, is a key part of the reconciliation process.

Although exact numbers are still unclear, military occupation of private homes and lands affects many people who have gone back to their villages in former conflict areas in the north, such as former fisherman Manikkarasan Nathan, who spent more than two years in Menik Farm.

"When we came back in early September this year, we couldn't go directly to our homes, because the military was staying on our lands," said the 40-year-old, who lost both his legs while trying to flee his home in Mullaitivu during the final battles in 2009. "They promised to leave when we returned, but it took them weeks to vacate the land." Hundreds of families are also left stranded and in transit locations because of mine clearance on and around their lands.

Menik Farm camp was designated an IDP site in May 2009 to shelter tens of thousands of people fleeing the final stages of Sri Lanka's three-decade-long conflict. UNHCR and many other organizations provided basic services such as shelter, food, water and sanitation, education and primary health care.

Rasaiah Gnanabiha, who spent almost two years from April 2009 on Menik Farm before returning to her village in the country's northern district of Kilinochchi, said she had faced many difficulties at first.

"The camp was very crowded and we didn't have proper shelter or water," she recalled. "But as time went on, as people started to leave the camp to go back to their homes and more assistance came in, the situation improved."

UNHCR has been supporting the government's resettlement programme for IDPs. The refugee agency provides returnees with a shelter cash grant and basic household items like bedsheets, jerry cans, kitchen sets and jungle clearing tools.

Nathan is finally able to start using his shelter cash grant the military vacated his home earlier this week. He and his family spent several weeks living in a small church, worried about snakes at night and getting enough water during the day. Now he can start rebuilding his life.

By Sulakshani Perera in Colombo, Sri Lanka

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Sri Lanka: IDPs and Returnees

During Sri Lanka's 20-year civil war more than 1 million people were uprooted from their homes or forced to flee, often repeatedly. Many found shelter in UNHCR-supported Open Relief Centers, in government welfare centers or with relatives and friends.

In February 2002, the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) signed a cease-fire accord and began a series of talks aimed at negotiating a lasting peace. By late 2003, more than 300,000 internally displaced persons had returned to their often destroyed towns and villages.

In the midst of these returns, UNHCR provided physical and legal protection to war affected civilians – along with financing a range of special projects to provide new temporary shelter, health and sanitation facilities, various community services, and quick and cheap income generation projects.

Sri Lanka: IDPs and Returnees

Picking Up the Pieces in Sri Lanka

In an unprecedented response to a natural disaster, the U.N. refugee agency – whose mandate is to protect refugees fleeing violence and persecution – has kicked off a six-month, multi-million dollar emergency relief operation to aid tsunami victims in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Somalia. UNHCR has worked in Sri Lanka for nearly 20 years and has the largest operational presence in the country with seven offices, 113 staff and a strong network of partnerships in place. The day of the tsunami, UNHCR opened up its warehouses in the island nation and began distributing existing stockpiles – including plastic sheeting, cooking sets and clothing for 100,000 people.

UNHCR estimates that some 889,000 people are now displaced in Sri Lanka, including many who were already displaced by the long-running conflict in the north. Prior to the tsunami, UNHCR assisted 390,000 people uprooted by the war. UNHCR is now expanding its logistical and warehouse capacity throughout the island to facilitate delivery of relief items to the needy populations, including in the war-affected area. The refugee agency is currently distributing relief items and funding mobile health clinics to assist the injured and sick.

Picking Up the Pieces in Sri Lanka

Statelessness in Sri Lanka: Hill Tamils

Most of the people working on the hundreds of tea plantations that dot Sri Lanka's picturesque hill country are descended from ethnic Tamils brought from India between 1820 and 1840 when the island was under British colonial rule. Although these people, known as "Hill Tamils," have been making an invaluable contribution to Sri Lanka's economy for almost two centuries, up until recently the country's stringent citizenship laws made it next to impossible for them to berecognized as citizens. Without the proper documents they could not vote, hold a government job, open a bank account or travel freely.

The Hill Tamils have been the subject of a number of bilateral agreements in the past giving them the option between Sri Lankan and Indian citizenship. But in 2003, there were still an estimated 300,000 stateless people of Indian origin living in Sri Lanka.

Things improved markedly, in October 2003, after the Sri Lankan parliament passed the "Grant of Citizenship to People of Indian Origin Act," which gave nationality to people who had lived in Sri Lanka since 1964 and to their descendants. UNHCR, the government of Sri Lanka and local organizations ran an information campaign informing Hill Tamils about the law and the procedures for acquiring citizenship. With more than 190,000 of the stateless people in Sri Lanka receiving citizenship over a 10-day period in late 2003, this was heralded as a huge success story in the global effort to reduce statelessness.

Also, in 2009, the parliament passed amendments to existing regulations, granting citizenship to refugees who fled Sri Lanka's conflict and are living in camps in India. This makes it easier for them to return to Sri Lanka if they so wish to.

Statelessness in Sri Lanka: Hill Tamils

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