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Priority Should Be Given To Sri Lanka's Displaced

UNHCR URGES RENEWED PRIORITY BE GIVEN TO THE NEEDS OF SRI LANKA'S DISPLACED

UNHCR Inspector General Dennis McNamara called for renewed attention to the plight of Sri Lanka's hundreds of thousands of displaced persons as the country looks forward to the resumption of peace talks.

Mr. McNamara, winding up a two-week mission to Sri Lanka with a small team from UNHCR headquarters in Geneva, welcomed the efforts of the many actors - governmental, non-governmental and U.N. - that have over the past two years helped more than 360,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) return home spontaneously. The Inspector General and his team have been reviewing UNHCR's operations throughout the country and assessing what more can be done to help resolve one of the world's largest and most protracted displacement situations.

"It is critical that the remaining internally displaced, who still number some 370,000 individuals, are able to achieve a long-term solution to their displacement, whether that solution means returning home, relocating elsewhere or integrating into the community in which they are displaced," Mr McNamara said. "Among other things, this requires a renewed focus on removing obstacles to these solutions - by, for instance, addressing the high level of destruction of housing, returning land and property to its rightful owners, accelerating clearance of landmines and unexploded ordnance, and identifying a pragmatic solution for those whose homes are in High Security Zones. It also requires greater investment to ensure that conditions in return areas are conducive to a safe and dignified return - that families are able to earn a living, send their children to school, access health facilities and live in safety."

UNHCR stressed the importance of attention being given to the return of minority groups, such as displaced Muslims. "The treatment of minorities in such situations is often a litmus test of the real spirit of peace, reconciliation and stable society," he said.

As a result of its internal conflict, Sri Lanka has hosted one of the largest internally displaced populations in Asia. In 1991, UNHCR was requested by the UN Secretary General to co-ordinate UN efforts to address this problem. It has since contributed over $100 million to this endeavour. Despite large numbers of spontaneous returns since the February 2002 Ceasefire Agreement, today nearly 400,000 people remain internally displaced. UNHCR works with the government and local authorities, as well as other UN agencies and NGOs, in providing assistance and protection to this displaced population. In addition, some 140,000 Sri Lankan refugees remain outside the country, including over 60,000 in camps in Southern India.

Mr. McNamara's team visited Puttalam, Mannar, Vavuniya, Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Kilinochchi and Jaffna. As well as representatives of IDPs and recent returnees, the team met with senior government officials, LTTE representatives, bilateral and multilateral actors, local and international NGOs, and representatives of civil society to discuss how UNHCR can most effectively contribute to ensuring respect for the rights of the displaced, and promoting viable futures for those remaining displaced.

For further information, please contact:

John Breusch
UNHCR Public Information Officer

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