The United Nations refugee agency has welcomed Sri Lanka’s decision this week to allow greater freedom of movement for some 135,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) remaining in 20 closed camps in the country’s north following the recently-ended civil conflict.
“We are encouraged by the Sri Lankan Government’s long-awaited decision,” Andrej Mahecic, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told reporters in Geneva.
“Our teams are in the process of assessing the number of IDPs exercising their new freedom of movement over the past few days and report that people continue to leave the camps,” he added.
There were some 280,000 IDPs staying in closed camps in May after a final push by Government forces ended the decades-long civil war with separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Since August, over 150,000 IDPs from the former conflict zone have left the camps, most of them as part of the Government’s ongoing return process.
UNHCR staff reported that, on the first day that this week’s decision entered into force, over 7,000 IDPs left from the Menik Farm camps in Vavuniya, the largest IDP site, and another 25 from the camp in Trincomalee.
“According to our teams on the ground, many people left their belongings in the camps, which is an indication that they intend to return to the camps,” said Mr. Mahecic.
“Some of those interviewed told UNHCR they wanted to visit friends and relatives in other camps, in Vavuniya town, and the centers where those with suspected links with the LTTE are being held.”
Authorities have said there is no time limit to the freedom of movement, but there were reports that IDPs would only be allowed to stay away from the camps up to ten days, said UNHCR. Many are also scheduled to return to areas of origin in the coming days and weeks under the Government-organized return plan.
“We hope as this new freedom of movement continues and the IDPs are fully informed of the process, inconsistencies across the different camps and districts and bureaucratic obstacles will be ironed out so that all IDPs will be able to exercise their right to full freedom of movement,” Mr. Mahecic stated.
UNHCR also said it hoped that the demining efforts keep pace with the rapid rate of returns and that IDPs are only returned to areas cleared of mines or where suspected areas are clearly demarcated.
The agency is supporting returning families with a shelter grant of Rupees 25,000 (or $250) and non-food relief items. It is also monitoring the situation and conditions in the return areas to identify gaps in terms of assistance.