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2014 UNHCR regional operations profile - South Asia

| Overview |

Working environment

Although India, Nepal and Sri Lanka are not signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention, they offer asylum to a considerable number of refugees. For its part, UNHCR cooperates with the Governments of these countries, as well as with NGOs and other stakeholders, to protect and assist urban refugees. It also helps to seek comprehensive solutions for internally displaced people (IDPs) and protracted refugee situations.

India grants asylum and provides direct assistance to some 200,000 refugees from neighbouring countries. As the country lacks a national legal framework for asylum, UNHCR conducts registration and refugee status determination (RSD), mostly for arrivals from Afghanistan and Myanmar. More than 24,000 refugees and asylum-seekers of diverse origins are protected and assisted by the Office in India.

While a large majority of those registered by UNHCR in India live in Delhi, an increasing number are settling outside the capital. The Government of India allows UNHCR mandate refugees to apply for long- term visas and work permits. Refugees and asylum-seekers have access to basic government services such as health care and education. In addition, they have access to the law-enforcement and justice systems. UNHCR and its partners work to facilitate this by providing information and interpretation services.

Nepal has generously hosted a large number of refugees, mainly from Bhutan, for many decades. However, in the absence of any formal refugee legislation, the Government has adopted various approaches to deal with different refugee populations. UNHCR continues to advocate for the adoption of a national refugee framework and Nepal's accession to international refugee instruments.

Under a large-scale group resettlement programme which began in 2007, more than 83,000 refugees from Bhutan have started new lives in eight countries. The camp population has been reduced to a third of its original size and the two refugee camps in eastern Nepal currently host some 34,000 refugees.

Five years after the end of the conflict in Sri Lanka, the majority of those who were IDPs in the country have returned to their place of origin. However, an undetermined number of individuals remain in protracted displacement, unable to return home owing to housing, land and property issues. Although there has been significant progress in re-establishing infrastructure in the north, some returnees continue to face difficulties in earning a livelihood and meeting their basic needs.

Sri Lanka has seen a growing number of people arriving seeking asylum, and this trend is likely to continue. While national security is expected to be the Government's primary concern, problems of refoulement or the deportation of people of concern are not anticipated. The return of Sri Lankan refugees will continue, albeit at a slower pace.

| Response |


  • In India, UNHCR will conduct registration and RSD in a timely and efficient manner and protect the growing number of people of concern in Delhi through outreach services, including legal, social and educational support, in areas where they reside. UNHCR will focus on responding to people with specific needs through collaboration with community- based and local NGO networks. Community development initiatives are designed to help refugees become more self-reliant. UNHCR will also facilitate the voluntary repatriation of Sri Lankan refugees in cooperation with the Governments of India and Sri Lanka.

  • In Nepal, UNHCR will continue to implement the third-country resettlement programme for refugees from Bhutan. It will request the Core Group of resettlement countries (Australia, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States) to continue to support the search for durable solutions, resettlement included. To allow refugees to make informed decisions on resettlement, UNHCR will strengthen its mobile information and counselling services. It will also address the issue of the increasing number of refugees failing to show up at resettlement interviews.

  • In Sri Lanka, UNHCR will conduct RSD and find durable solutions for recognized refugees while engaging with the Government to preserve and expand asylum space. UNHCR will also facilitate the voluntary return of Sri Lankan refugees in conditions of safety and dignity and help them to reintegrate into their communities. To support durable solutions for IDPs, UNHCR will strengthen national institutions and local authorities to enable them to deliver adequate services in the north.


Many refugees in South Asia face protection risks and livelihood challenges, given their lack of formal status and in the absence of national refugee legislation, while opportunities for durable solutions are limited. At the same time, an increase in the number of asylum applications throughout the subregion has stretched UNHCR's response capacity.

In India, poverty is a key challenge for the majority of refugees and asylum-seekers, who also face discrimination from local communities with little understanding of refugee issues.

In Sri Lanka, IDP and refugee returnees have difficulty in meeting their basic needs. The lack of a comprehensive national policy on land rights has had an adverse impact on sustainable return. More recently, the Government has engaged in dialogue with UNHCR on asylum issues with a view to broadening the asylum space in the country.

The quality of public health and education in the camps in Nepal has been adversely affected by the departure of skilled refugee workers who are resettled. At the same time, the processing of resettlement submissions for the refugees from Bhutan in Nepal is extremely labour-intensive, a situation that is expected to intensify as more complex cases are considered.

| Implementation |


By July 2013, there were over 20,000 refugees and some 3,800 asylum-seekers in India who were registered with UNHCR, mostly from Afghanistan and Myanmar. Pending the adoption of a national legal framework for refugees, UNHCR registers and conducts RSD for people of concern and helps refugees and asylum-seekers to gain access to government health and education services.

UNHCR continues to advocate with the Government to ensure that all eligible refugees obtain long-term visas and work permits in India. It is also strengthening its livelihood programme to provide the skills and language training that can help lead to gainful employment for refugees. Partnerships with civil-society groups will continue to help identify ways in which the growing number of refugees and asylum-seekers living outside Delhi, especially women and children, can avail themselves of basic services and protection. For those refugees whose protection needs cannot be met in India, UNHCR will facilitate resettlement. Refugees who wish to voluntarily repatriate will be assisted. Legal assistance will be provided to eligible refugees who wish to obtain Indian citizenship.

In Nepal, where UNHCR is expected to facilitate the resettlement of some 7,000 people in 2014, refugees still in the camps will continue to receive protection and assistance. UNHCR will also protect and assist refugees and asylum-seekers in urban areas, who are considered by the Government to be irregular migrants. UNHCR will continue its advocacy with the Nepalese authorities to simplify the visa-waiver process to make it easier for refugees who are accepted for resettlement to leave the country.

UNHCR will also pursue advocacy efforts to assure the safe transit of Tibetans arriving in Nepal into India, and for the issuance of refugee documents for the long-staying Tibetan population. It will work with UN partners and civil society to advocate for the inclusion of citizenship laws that comply with international standards in a new Constitution that may be adopted in 2014.

In Sri Lanka, the rising numbers of asylum-seeker arrivals call for an increase in UNHCR's RSD capacity and resettlement support in the country. The organization will ensure that effective RSD systems are in place and strengthen its capacity to provide basic assistance to urban refugees, especially women and children at risk.

UNHCR will continue to facilitate the voluntary return of Sri Lankan refugees and assist them during the reintegration process, including through post-return monitoring. In partnership with development actors and other UN agencies, UNHCR will pursue its efforts to advocate for durable solutions for the remaining IDPs, as well as for those who have returned to their place of origin, relocated to a new area or are integrating locally. Depending on the developments on the ground, it is envisaged that direct UNHCR assistance for IDP returnees will be reassessed by 2015.

| Financial information |

UNHCR's overall financial requirements for the South Asia subregion have decreased over the past few years, with the 2014 budget for South Asia set at USD 38.2 million. This trend is mainly due to the downscaling of IDP-related activities in Sri Lanka and a reduction in the size of the refugee population in the camps in Nepal. However, both the Sri Lanka and Nepal operations continue to require adequate resources to ensure protection and maintain standards of basic assistance for people of concern, especially in view of the considerable increase in the number of asylum applications in both countries. Meanwhile, the financial requirements for India have been growing steadily, in accordance with the rise in the number of refugees living in urban areas in the country.

UNHCR budgets for South Asia (USD)
Operation 2013
Revised budget
(as of 30 June 2013)
2014 2015
Total 38,839,905 31,567,862 2,336,884 3,030,049 1,264,439 38,199,234 35,424,378
India 13,007,112 13,606,075 30,000 0 0 13,636,075 14,594,199
Nepal 15,579,191 10,176,263 2,231,142 3,030,049 0 15,437,453 13,288,681
Sri Lanka 10,253,602 7,785,524 75,742 0 1,264,439 9,125,705 7,541,497

Source: UNHCR Global Appeal 2014-2105



Statistical Snapshot*
* As at January 2014
  1. Country or territory of asylum or residence. In the absence of Government estimates, UNHCR has estimated the refugee population in most industrialized countries based on 10 years of asylum-seekers recognition.
  2. Persons recognized as refugees under the 1951 UN Convention/1967 Protocol, the 1969 OAU Convention, in accordance with the UNHCR Statute, persons granted a complementary form of protection and those granted temporary protection. It also includes persons in a refugee-like situation whose status has not yet been verified.
  3. Persons whose application for asylum or refugee status is pending at any stage in the procedure.
  4. Refugees who have returned to their place of origin during the first six months of 2013. Source: Country of origin and asylum.
  5. Persons who are displaced within their country and to whom UNHCR extends protection and/or assistance. It also includes persons who are in an IDP-like situation.
  6. IDPs protected/assisted by UNHCR who have returned to their place of origin during the first six months of 2013.
  7. Refers to persons under UNHCR's statelessness mandate.
  8. Persons of concern to UNHCR not included in the previous columns but to whom UNHCR extends protection and/or assistance.
  9. The category of people in a refugee-like situation is descriptive in nature and includes groups of people who are outside their country of origin and who face protection risks similar to those of refugees, but for whom refugee status has, for practical or other reasons, not been ascertained.
The data are generally provided by Governments, based on their own definitions and methods of data collection.
A dash (-) indicates that the value is zero, not available or not applicable.

Source: UNHCR/Governments.
Compiled by: UNHCR, FICSS.
Residing in Sri Lanka [1]
Refugees [2] 145
Asylum Seekers [3] 1,607
Returned Refugees [4] 920
Internally Displaced Persons (IDPS) [5]
More info 42,191
The statistics of the remaining IDPs at the end of 2013, while provided by the Government authorities at the district level, are being reviewed by the central authorities. Once this review has been concluded, the statistics will be changed accordingly.
Returned IDPs [6] 40,691
Stateless Persons [7] 0
Various [8] 0
Total Population of Concern 85,554
Originating from Sri Lanka [1]
Refugees [2] 123,088
Asylum Seekers [3] 16,158
Returned Refugees [4] 920
Internally Displaced Persons (IDPS) [5]
More info 42,191
The statistics of the remaining IDPs at the end of 2013, while provided by the Government authorities at the district level, are being reviewed by the central authorities. Once this review has been concluded, the statistics will be changed accordingly.
Returned IDPs [6] 40,691
Various [8] 7
Total Population of Concern 223,055
Government Contributions to UNHCR
Contributions since 2000
2014 0
2013 0
2012 0
2011 0
2010 0
2009 0
2008 0
2007 0
2006 0
2005 0
2004 0
2003 6,500
2002 5,101
2001 8,539
2000 0

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2012 UNHCR partners in Sri Lanka
Implementing partners
Government agencies:; Ministry of Economic Development; Ministry of Finance and Planning; Ministry of Public Administration and Home Affairs; Ministry of Resettlement
NGOs: Danish Refugee Council; Jaffna Social Action Centre; Muslim Aid; OfERR; Organization for Human Rights and Resources Development; Rural Development Foundation; Saravodaya; Sewalanka Foundation; The Refugee Rehabilitation Organization
Others: Bank of Ceylon; Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka; UNDP; UNOPS
Operational partners
Government agencies:; Ministy of Child Development and Women's Affairs; Ministy of External Affairs; Ministy of Justice; Ministy of National Languages and Social Integration; Ministy of Rehabilitation and Prison Reforms; Ministy of Social Services; Presidential Task Force for Resettlement; Development and Security in the Northern Province
NGOs: Adventist Development and Relief Agency; Care; Caritas; Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions; Christian Aid UK; Deutsche Welthungerhilfe; Habitat for Humanity; Handicap International; HelpAge International; Malteser International; Norwegian Refugee Council; Oxfam; People in Need; Relief International; Save the Children Sri Lanka; Schweizerisches Arbeiterhilfwerk; United Methodist Committee on Relief; World Vision Sri Lanka; ZOA Refugee Care
Others: Asian Development Bank; Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit; ICRC; JICA; World Bank

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

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

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

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

Sri Lanka: Home At LastPlay video

Sri Lanka: Home At Last

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India/Sri Lanka: A Ferry Ride HomePlay video

India/Sri Lanka: A Ferry Ride Home

For the first time in many years, Sri Lankan refugees are returning home from India by ferry.
Sri Lanka: Time to ReturnPlay video

Sri Lanka: Time to Return

A year after the end of the long civil war in Sir Lanka, the government is slowly helping the internally displaced to return home.
Sri Lanka AirliftPlay video

Sri Lanka Airlift

UNHCR has sent in emergency teams and launched an airlift to help those displaced by the violence in the island nation of Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka AirliftPlay video

Sri Lanka Airlift

To help those displaced by the recent violence in Sri Lanka, UNHCR has launched a humanitarian airlift
Sri Lanka: Decades Of DisplacementPlay video

Sri Lanka: Decades Of Displacement

Each day the conflict in Sri Lanka forces more families to flee their homes. More than 300,000 people have been displaced in the last year alone. UNHCR is attempting to help the newly displaced and those who have been uprooted for years.