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UN political chief voices concern about displaced after wrapping up visit to Sri Lanka

18 September 2009 – Internally displaced persons (IDPs) living in Government-run camps in Sri Lanka lack basic rights of freedom of movement, and the country is not making the expected progress towards a lasting peace in the wake of the end earlier this year to fighting between military forces and Tamil rebels, the United Nations political chief said today.

B. Lynn Pascoe, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, told a press conference in Colombo at the end of his visit to Sri Lanka that the UN had not observed the progress expected after the world body and the Government issued a joint statement following the conclusion of fighting with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May.

More than 280,000 IDPs now reside in often congested camps in the north of the country, and Mr. Pascoe – who visited some camps yesterday – said he was very concerned about the lack of freedom of movement for residents and what he called the “closed nature” of the camps.

“People are not free to come or go and they are understandably upset,” he said. “We picked up great frustration on this point in the camps that we visited yesterday. I was told by many – and quite emphatically – that they just want to go home.

“We understand there are security concerns to be addressed. At the same time, this kind of closed regime goes directly against the principles under which we work in assisting IDPs all around the world.”

Mr. Pascoe urged the Government to allow those IDPs who have completed the screening process to leave the camps as they choose, and for those people remaining to be able to exit the camps during the day and to freely meet with family and friends in other sites.

On the last day of his visit to Sri Lanka, Mr. Pascoe held talks today with President Mahinda Rajapaksa, senior Government ministers, military officials, opposition leaders, Tamil politicians and representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other civil society groups.

During the meetings the Under-Secretary-General discussed the situation of the IDPs as well as human rights accountability and political reconciliation.

He told the press conference that he was pleased that Walter Kälin, the Secretary-General’s Representative on the human rights of IDPs, will visit the country next week.

But Mr. Pascoe said he remains concerned about the pace of the process of allowing IDPs to return to their former communities.

“If there is more screening to do, it should be speeded up. It appears there are areas where de-mining is not a big concern. For those areas, families who have passed the screening process could be resettled without much further delay. More people should be allowed to stay with relatives and host families.”

Mr. Pascoe said he was informed by the Government today that it intends to both provide day passes to allow people to go to work or visit family and friends and to more aggressively publicize the option of accommodation with relatives and other host families.

“Of course this is not the ultimate solution to the problem of getting people home quickly, but it is an interim measure that reduces congestion in the camps,” he said, calling for the Government to show more transparency and to consult more widely to allay the fears and concerns of the IDPs.

He stressed that the IDP issue is particularly important because it provides Sri Lanka with “an opportunity to move beyond simply ending the fighting to solidifying the peace. As the situation currently stands in the camps, there is a real risk of breeding resentment that will undermine the prospects for political reconciliation in the future.”

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