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UNHCR helps resolve land issues in Sri Lanka's north

Making a Difference, 6 November 2012

© UNHCR/S.Perera
The local government office in Maruthankerny, Jaffna district, has been using equipment provided by UNHCR to support land documentation needs in the area.

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, November 6 (UNHCR) Three-and-a-half years after Sri Lanka's civil war ended, fresh challenges have emerged as people continue to return home. The UN refugee agency is working with local authorities and partners to support sustainable returns by addressing some of these problems, including housing, land and property.

The 26-year-long conflict, which ended in May 2009, left basic services in tatters, destroyed homes and infrastructure, and caused hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes in the north and east. As they fled, many families lost key documents, including property title deeds.

With local government services virtually non-existent at the time of return, they were unable to obtain copies of documents or could not afford to do so. That meant many people could not prove that they owned their land.

"Land documentation is critical for these families to restart their lives and reintegrate in their villages," said Michael Zwack, UNHCR's representative in Sri Lanka. "Without land deeds, returnee families cannot obtain the clearance to rebuild their homes or prove ownership in order to access housing assistance. Documents are also essential for families to claim compensation for private land that has been used for state purposes."

To help tackle this thorny problem, the UN refugee agency has provided computers, photocopiers, scanners and fax machines to 45 local government offices dealing with land documentation and records in the Mannar, Jaffna, Vavuniya, Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi districts. These will allow officials to process land claims and issue fresh documentation.

UNHCR, following discussion with the Registrar General's Department, will also arrange computer servers for 14 sub-offices in the north to help decentralize the process of issuing and storing documentation. The servers will also help link the offices and keep information on claims and titles.

"The responsibility of meeting land and civil documentation needs generally lies with the Registrar General's Department. These functions are decentralized to the local government offices and the land registries in the districts," explained Zwack. "So while this equipment is provided primarily to help streamline the application process for land documentation, it also helps streamline the general functions and increase the efficiency of the local government offices."

Civil servants dealing with land issues welcomed the new equipment. Nadarajah Thurilinganathan, who heads the local government office in Maruthurankery, said chaos had ensued in 2006 when they had to move to a safer area of Jaffna district when the fighting came close.

"During the relocation process, we lost all the documentation, including copies of land deeds belonging to the people in this area," he said. "But thanks to this equipment we are now able to liaise with the [land] survey department and obtain new copies of the deeds."

UNHCR, through local partner organizations, is also helping in the demarcation process, so that returnees can cordon off their area and build protective fences. The agency funds transportation costs for government survey experts sent to demarcate property in remote rural areas.

This process is especially important for people like Yoganathan Selvarani, 36, who lives with her six children while her husband works overseas. Selvarani and her family are from a village close to the coast in Jaffna's Aliyavalai area.

They left the village after the area was hit by the Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004 and moved further inland. They then experienced multiple displacements when the civil war resumed and finally returned two years ago.

"Even though we were living on the land, it was not properly demarcated so I couldn't put up a fence," said Selvarani, adding that survey department staff visited earlier this year and set up pegs marking the boundaries. "Since my husband isn't here, a fence is essential to cordon off my land and provide some semblance of security," she said, adding: "We couldn't build it earlier without knowing exactly where the land's boundaries are." She has since built a fence with her brother's help.

Targeted actions such as these are going a long way to ensure that smaller issues are identified and addressed pre-emptively. But beyond these practical measures, there is still an urgent need for a comprehensive nationwide policy on compensation and restitution for families whose private lands have been used for state purposes. Accelerated procedures to establish land claims and the establishment of alternate dispute resolution mechanisms could help to ensure a sustainable return of the displaced.

More than 238,000 internally displaced people and 6,300 refugees have returned home in Sri Lanka since May 2009.

>By Sulakshani Perera in Colombo, Sri Lanka

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Returnees in Myanmar

During the early 1990s, more than 250,000 Rohingya Muslims fled across the border into Bangladesh, citing human rights abuses by Myanmar's military government. In exile, refugees received shelter and assistance in 20 camps in the Cox's Bazaar region of Bangladesh. More than 230,000 of the Rohingya Muslims have returned since 1992, but about 22,000 still live in camps in Bangladesh. To promote stability in returnee communities in Myanmar and to help this group of re-integrate into their country, UNHCR and its partner agencies provide monitors to insure the protection and safety of the returnees as well as vocational training, income generation schemes, adult literacy programs and primary education.

Returnees in Myanmar

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.

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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.

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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

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