Thursday, September 17, 2009

Sri Lanka's released refugees moved to new camps

By M.S. Krishantha - At least half the 10,000 war refugees the Sri Lankan government said it sent home last week are still being held in transfer camps in their home districts, refugees and the government said on Thursday.

Also on Thursday, the U.N.'s top political official toured several camps including Menik Farm, the largest in Sri Lanka. Most of the 265,000 people who fled fighting at the end of Sri Lanka's quarter-century civil war are being held there.

Lynn Pascoe, head of the U.N. political affairs department, was on the Indian Ocean island to meet with government officials and raise the world body's concern that refugees were not being returned home swiftly enough.

Pascoe saw mine-clearing and rehabilitation work in the northwestern area of Mannar, where some of the first refugees were returned.

"I also met with people in the camps who want to leave and return to their homes, but cannot do so, and are understandably growing impatient and anxious about their future," Pascoe said in a statement.

Last week the government said it had sent home nearly 10,000 war refugees from Menik Farm, located near the town of Vavuniya, to their homes in the eastern districts of Batticaloa and Trincomalee and the northern district of Jaffna. [ID:nCOL445684]

"I'm disappointed to have left Vavuniya thinking that we can go home," M. Shivanandan, 49, said from a government school in Tricomalee where he and 320 others are being held.

A government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said about 45 percent of the 10,000 moved from Menik Farm last week had been sent home.

Human Rights and Disaster Management Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe confirmed some of them were still in transfer camps.

"They will be sent home soon, in a few days or weeks. There were rumours of them being kept for six months, which are total rubbish," Samarasinghe told Reuters.

The minister said he discussed the matter with U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres on Wednesday.

Trincomalee District Government Agent Maj-Gen. T.P.R. de Silva told Reuters on Saturday by telephone that transferred refugees must be locally registered before they can be sent home.

Transferred refugees complained of a lack of services in the camps, which has been a steady refrain from refugees, rights groups and Tamil activists.

Over 280,000 people were displaced in the final stage of the war against the Tamil Tiger separatists. The Tigers held many of them by force as a human shield as a military juggernaut marched on the rebels and finally destroyed them.

The government has said it has released 15,000 refugees since the end of the war in mid-May. United Nations data says nearly 12,000 have been sent home, about half of them elderly refugees released either to rest homes or the care of relatives.

Sri Lanka has pledged to resettle 80 percent of the people by the end of the year, but says it must clear thousands of landmines and weed out Tamil Tiger fighters hiding among the civilians before it can do so.

© Reuters

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