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"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Home > Struggle for Tamil Eelam > International Frame of  Struggle for Tamil Eelam > United States & the Struggle for Tamil Eelam > Congressional Human Rights Caucus Briefing - Statement by UNHCR Representative Karen Koning Abuzayd

United States & the struggle for Tamil Eelam

Congressional Human Rights Caucus
Briefing - CHRC Archive: Briefings

2 March 1999
by Karen Koning Abuzayd
Representative of the UNHCR to the U.S. and the Caribbean
1775 K Street, N.W. Suite 300 Washington, D.C.  20006


UNHCR Activities in Sri Lanka


 The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was created in December 1950 by Resolution 428 of the General Assembly with a mandate to protect, assist and find solutions to the problems of refugees, returnees, and, when requested by the Secretary-General or General Assembly, internally displaced and war affected persons.  Today UNHCR cares for some 22.4 million people through its 290 offices in 124 countries.  It relies on voluntary contributions mainly from governments to cover its  annual programme costs of approximately $900,000,000.

Refugees in Sri Lanka

 Sri Lanka is not party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.  Refugee determination, therefore, is dealt with by UNHCR.  The 28 mandate refugees* and asylum seekers are protected against refoulement by an Immigration Act, and, until May 1998, new arrivals recognized as refugees or bonafide asylum seekers were released into UNHCR care.  Following a sudden increase in Iraqi asylum seekers (21), procedures became more restrictive and new asylum-seekers have been kept in detention.  Refugees in any case do not have access to the labour market, education or health services and there is no family reunification programme.  The main durable solution is resettlement, to Norway, the U.K. and Sweden.

Return and Reintegration

 UNHCR began working in Sri Lanka in 1987, initially assisting the return and reintegration of Sri Lankan refugees from India.  One hundred thousand persons returned between 1987 and 1995.  (In 1998, a group of some 100 refugees returned from India by boat to Mannar, but there are no plans or expectations for new return movements in 1999.  Some 100,000 Sri Lankan refugees remain in India, 15,000 of whom have gone there since 1996.)

 When the Government regained control of Jaffna from the LTTE in 1995, further repatriation was curtailed and a large population movement took place into Vanni.  Since UNHCR was already working with returnees in these two areas, the U.N. Secretary-General requested that assistance and protection be extended to idps.  UNHCR�s Guidelines on IDPs provide for intervention on request when there is a proximate refugee or returnee population and when, as in the case of the displaced in the Vanni conflict zone, assistance and protection may stabilize a population and provide an alternative to flight to a neighbouring country.


 Following an escalation of armed conflict during late 1997 - early 1998, UNHCR became again increasingly involved in providing urgent relief assistance for newly displaced persons.  This was a frustrating and difficult time for humanitarian agencies, since military operations limited their access and therefore their ability to deliver food and medical supplies.  Activities were focused on the re-establishment of national protection, promotion of freedom of movement and ensuring relative safety in the Open Relief Centres, set up as areas of tranquillity respected by both sides,  allowing the delivery of humanitarian assistance to around 400,000 persons, and an international presence which provides some measure of security to the population at large.   The population in these Centres doubled in the second half of  1997, but dropped significantly in 1998 when around 30,000 people returned to their places of origin in Jaffna, bringing to 100,000 the number of returnees to Jaffna. (At any one time approximately 20,000 people are in the four ORCs.)

 While the Government has always accepted its responsibility for all idps and its obligation to provide them with food assistance, as might be expected, deliveries are much more successful to government-controlled than to conflict areas.  [HCR and ICRC agree that between them they probably meet only 50% of the needs, there being somewhere between 670,000 and 800,000 idps according to the government.]   E.g.,  the agreed food targets for Vanni are met at only about 40% [WFP to detail], and in July 1998 the Government cut rations drastically until December, when, after demonstrations and protests and a joint UN approach to Government, an increase of 50% in the ration was agreed.  UNHCR and WFP are presently working on an agreement with the Government and the LTTE to carry out an idp census which should put to rest conflicting claims on all sides about numbers, targets and food supplies.   UNHCR also recently facilitated a visit by the Sri Lankan Relief and Rehabilitation Authorities of the North to the LTTE authorities in Vanni, a meeting which occasioned an agreement about the need to increase food  supplies.

 The new military strategy introduced in December 1998 contains serious measures to promote peace talks, but also the threat of engagement in a number of smaller operations, with the possibility of  additional displacement.

Women and Children

 Conditions for women and children idps are precarious (as in all such situations), but the authorities do try to pay special attention to the effects of displacement on these groups.  There is no evidence of violence or discrimination directed toward women, and special feeding programmes for children have been set up.  UNHCR micro projects are aimed at, inter alia,  strengthening the situation of female headed households through income-generating activities, at providing educational opportunities through repairing schools and they also include such things as escorting examination papers in the conflict affected areas.


 Another problem of concern to UNHCR is the statelessness of children born of foreign males, including refugees, married to Sri Lankans, since nationality is granted only through the paternal line.  [While UNHCR is not directly involved, it is interesting to note the handling of  975,000 stateless Indians in Sri Lanka who have been subject of a 1964, revised in 1974, agreement on numbers  of who would return and  who would remain.]

Return of Rejected Asylum Seekers

 UNHCR also undertakes monitoring of the return of rejected asylum seekers from Switzerland, following the Swiss-Sri Lankan bilateral agreement.  Ten returnees had been arrested in 1997, none in  1998, but some were detained at the airport in the first part of the year.  Since May,  these �deportees� are interviewed by both Immigration and  police officials, but released the same day if they have travel documents.  By end November 1998, 892 individuals had returned under this agreement.  We understand similar arrangements have been reached with the Netherlands and Denmark and other countries are negotiating to establish their own agreements.   [UNHCR has agreed to monitor these agreements in the interest of protecting genuine refugees in asylum countries.]

Promotion and  Training

 UNHCR engages in the promotion of refugee law and  training, particularly among  the military, but also in the context of the inter-governmental Regional Consultations on Refugee and Migratory Movements, and is planning to focus more in 1999 on helping to operationalize the Guiding Principles on IDPs developed by Francis Deng, following up the Machel report on children in armed conflict with other UN agencies and the Special Rapporteur on Children in Armed Conflict and  working with the many well-established and highly-qualified national ngos and other institutions in Sri Lanka.  Thirteen ngos are funded by HCR as implementing partners.


 UNHCR maintains that the UN, ICRC and ngo international presence in the conflict zones, particularly in the ORCs, remains an important protection tool in the North and East of the country.  The idps themselves repeatedly emphasize the need for this presence, although their more pressing demand is for the international community to bring them peace.

 Still, UNHCR has closed one field office, leaving the Branch Office and five field offices, and is planning to consolidate its operations further, gradually winding down as more idps return to their places of origin.  As a result, UNHCR�s proposed $7,518,510 budget for 1999 shows a reduction from 1998 of $1.8m.  The �Global Appeal� handout made available to the Caucus details the sectors covered  [which are transport/logistics, household support, water, sanitation, health/nutrition, shelter, community services, education, crop production, livestock, fisheries, income-generation and protection/monitoring/coordination].   At this time, expenditures are more or less evenly divided between Jaffna and Vanni.  


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