IDP returns nearing completion

JAFFNA, 27 August 2010 (IRIN) - Almost 90 percent of the internally displaced in Sri Lanka have returned to their homes or are staying with host families, the government says.

"We expect the return process to be completed by the end of this year," the Deputy Minister of Resettlement, Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, told IRIN from Colombo, the capital.

More than 280,000 people fled fighting between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who fought for an independent Tamil homeland for more than two decades until their defeat in May 2009.

Just 28,000 remain at the Menik Farm internally displaced persons (IDP) camp outside the northern town of Vavuniya, which was hastily erected in the final days of the war, according to official figures.

"Resettlement had been a priority of the government and the outcome is successful," Gammanpila Arachchige Chandrasiri, governor of the Northern Province, said.

Huge challenges remain, however.

"The biggest hurdle to the process is the issue of de-mining," Muralitharan said, prompting many to stay with host families in the interim.

UN officials on the ground agree, noting that some areas have yet to be de-mined or remain high security zones, effectively preventing IDPs from returning home as soon as they would like.

According to the latest Joint Humanitarian Update from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), some 475 sqkm have yet to be cleared of unexploded ordnance. 

"UNHCR [the UN Refugee Agency] considers that returns from the camps should not be premature and should not take place until conditions are right for return, eg, demining is completed," Jennifer Pagonis, deputy country representative of UNHCR in Colombo, said.

Otherwise, people could end up in secondary displacement in a transit-like situation where they do not receive the same services as in the camps, she warned.

"Critical period"

Speaking to donors on 26 August, Neil Buhne, the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Sri Lanka, reiterated the urgent need to stay the course in helping returnees and their communities.

"The job is not yet done. It is still a critical period and we ask for your continued support to meet the remaining crucial needs," Buhne said.

Meanwhile, for those who have returned, the struggle to regain a sense of normality continues.

"I am happy to be back at home. I just wish I could earn a proper living. We all depend on government support at the moment but our lives would be better if we have job prospects in our areas," said Kumara Thirunesan, 46, from Kilinochchi, who survives on a modest amount of government food assistance.

True normality can only return when people can live their lives independently, the father-of-three and former farmer said.