The Sri Lankan government is to step up efforts to repatriate more Sri Lankan refugees from India next year.
“In 2013, we will address the repatriation of Sri Lankan refugees living in southern India,” Sri Lanka's Minister of Resettlement Gunaratne Weerakoon told IRIN in Colombo.
According to Indian government figures, there are more than 100,000 Sri Lankans in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, including 68,000 in 112 government-run camps and 32,000 outside the camps.
The government is keen to welcome thousands of ethnic Tamil Sri Lankan refugees home after two and a half decades, Weerakoon said, noting, however, that Colombo’s current priority is the resettlement of those who were internally displaced in the final stages of the decades-long civil war which ended in May 2009.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, more than 440,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) have returned to the country’s north, three years after government forces declared victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who had been fighting for an independent Tamil homeland for more than 25 years.
“We will soon start talking to the Indian government, but not this year,” the minister said.
Four waves of refugees
Sri Lankan Tamils first began arriving in India in large numbers after communal violence and civil war broke out in 1983 - many with just the clothes on their back. A second influx occurred in 1989; third and fourth waves began in 1995 and 2006.
Asked how a larger repatriation effort might be implemented, Weerakoon said: “It will happen in stages and will be carried out with the assistance of the Indian government and UNHCR [the UN Refugee Agency]… There needs to be special support for such returnees.”
Since the end of the civil war, more than 5,000 Sri Lankans have returned to the island nation under a UNHCR-facilitated voluntary repatriation scheme. Most were from refugee camps in Tamil Nadu, and originally hailed from Trincomalee, Mannar, Vavuniya and Jaffna districts, with smaller numbers from Kilinochchi, Batticaloa, Colombo, Mullaitivu, Puttalam and Kandy.
In 2011, 1,728 Sri Lankan refugees returned with UNHCR’s help after the agency stepped up its assistance package to returnees. By the end of July 2012 a further 758 had returned.
“UNHCR in India helps Sri Lankan refugees who want to return home to do so. We pay for their air fare back to Colombo and help them get their exit permits from the Indian government and their travel documents from the Sri Lankan deputy High Commission in Chennai,” Nayana Bose, associate external relations officer for UNHCR in New Delhi, explained.
According to UNHCR, there are more than 136,000 Sri Lankan refugees living in 65 countries worldwide. Of those who have returned, the overwhelming majority are from Indian camps in Tamil Nadu, with a handful also returning from Malaysia, Georgia and Hong Kong.
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