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UN welcomes resumption of returns of displaced Sri Lankans

27 April 2010 – Following a three-week pause due to parliamentary polls and holidays, Government-backed returns of people uprooted by decades of fighting to their home areas has resumed in northern Sri Lanka, a move welcomed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Since the resumption of returns last week, some 7,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) have gone back to the districts of Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu, which both saw intense fighting between Government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) before the rebels were defeated last year.

More than 200,000 people have left camps in Sri Lanka’s north and east following the start of organized returns last August, and they have either returned to their homes or are staying with friends and relatives in Vavuniya, Mannar and other districts.

“People are returning to areas which suffered major destruction,” said spokesperson Andrej Mahecic of UNHCR, which is giving each returning family a cash grant worth $220 for shelter, which people have also been applying towards paying for land clearance or starting up small businesses.

More than 40,000 families had already received these funds by March, but the agency was forced to temporarily suspend its assistance due to a funding shortfall.

“But thanks to the generous contributions by donors, UNHCR will be restarting the shelter cash grants by the end of the week,” Mr. Mahecic noted.

Some 25,000 families, or some 82,000 people, are still living in camps or are sheltering with host families, and the agency said it expects more returns to take place this year, but stressed that additional resources are urgently needed to help them in the near future.

It is also distributing relief items to returnees, including plastic mats, mosquito nets and jungle clearing tools.

Mine clearing efforts are also under way, with the Government rebuilding roads, buildings, bridges and other infrastructure damaged in the war, which at its height last year had displaced some 280,000 people.

UNHCR said that livelihood activities and services such as transport, health and education are still lacking in most areas that IDPs are returning to. “Addressing these issues will help anchor the returns,” Mr. Mahecic emphasized.

Single women who are heading households have told the agency that there are few job opportunities in their home areas, and that they also face obstacles in obtaining documentation, such as death certificates for their deceased husbands, which are necessary to make them eligible for widows’ allowances and Government aid.

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