UN refugee agency UNHCR declared on 16 April 2002 that conditions were still not right for large-scale repatriation of Sri Lankan refugees from abroad. UNHCR said that the ceasefire agreement between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) improved prospects of a negotiated settlement, but acknowledged that the situation remained too fragile for the refugee agency to actively promote repatriation on a large scale. (www.unhcr.ch).
UNHCR estimates that 917,000 Sri Lankans, the vast majority of them Tamils, have fled the island’s ethnic war since 1983. This includes around 120,000 refugees in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
In letters to UK solicitors, UNHCR stated:
“Although steps towards peace have been taken in Sri Lanka recently, it is still premature to advocate that the situation has reached a satisfactory level of safety to warrant the return of all unsuccessful asylum applicants to Sri Lanka. In this regard, UNHCR has been aware that returning Tamils are potentially open to risk of serious harm similar to those generally encountered by young male Tamils in certain circumstances. This risk may be triggered by suspicion (on the part of the security forces) founded on various factual elements relating to the individual concerned, including the lack of identity documents, the lack of proper authorisation for residence and travel, the fact that the individual concerned is a young Tamil male from an ‘uncleared’ area or the fact that the person has close family members who are or have been involved with the LTTE.
“In UNHCR’s view, the presence of torture related scars on the body of a returnee should be a relevant consideration in assessing likelihood of danger upon the return of Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers. Where such scars are related to human rights abuses, they would likely be seen as evidence of the security forces’ previous interest in the particular individual. This could in turn serve to trigger further adverse attention to that individual. While every case should be addressed on its own merits, UNHCR would reiterate the view that special care must be taken in relation to the return of failed asylum seekers to Sri Lanka.”
Refugee community organisations in the UK have expressed concern that Western nations may attempt to carry out large-scale repatriation of asylum seekers while the situation is uncertain and without ensuring mechanisms to guarantee the safety and dignity of the refugees. There are currently nearly 800,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) in Sri Lanka. A large part of the infrastructure in north-east Sri Lanka, such as roads, electricity installations, communication facilities, houses and other buildings, agricultural and industrial facilities, has been destroyed. In this light, the Sri Lankan government would find it extremely difficult to resettle even the IDPs. A large-scale influx of refugees from abroad without proper plans for their safety, welfare and resettlement may have the effect of destabilising local communities and eventually the peace process.
UNHCR letters may be obtained from the Sri Lanka Project on 020 7820 3100