The return home of almost 300,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Sri Lanka must now be the priority for the government and humanitarian agencies assisting them, says a top US official.
“The government of the United States believes the focus now must be on the prompt return of the displaced in safety and dignity, and we want to support and accelerate this process,” Eric Schwartz, US Assistant Secretary of State for Refugees, said at the conclusion of a three-day visit to Sri Lanka on 27 July.
In addition to meeting President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Schwartz visited Menik Farm, a sprawling IDP camp outside Vavuniya town where more than 200,000 of the 280,000 displaced are now staying after fleeing heavy fighting between government forces and the defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who had been fighting for an independent Tamil homeland for more than two decades.
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During his meetings with top government officials, Schwartz said he had been told significant returns were planned for August.
“I was encouraged to learn that significant and substantial returns will take place over the next month,” the senior official said.
Although detailed plans have yet to be released, the government says it plans to resettle more than 60 percent of the displaced by year-end, and has been discussing contingency plans with UN and other agencies.
The US has announced US$8 million in assistance to support the process.
Photo: Amantha Perera/IRIN
US Assistant Secretary of State for Refugees
But despite signs of progress, Schwartz was concerned about the welfare of those inside the 35 government camps.
“In recent days and weeks, serious efforts have been made to decongest the sites and improve sanitary conditions,” he said. However, freedom of movement and access for relief agencies were still unsatisfactory.
“In particular, the vast majority of displaced persons remain confined to camps, and my visit to Menik Farm – and my conversations with displaced persons – underscored for me the hardships they are enduring. Moreover, there remain burdensome limitations on access to those camps for those international humanitarian organisations and others who are in a position to ameliorate the conditions faced by these victims of conflict.”
Worries over access resurfaced this month, after the government asked the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to scale back its activities.
“As a result of improved security … the government no longer needs any third party facilitation to reach people anywhere. In keeping with this policy, the government has directed the ICRC to scale down its operations in the northern and eastern provinces,” the government said on 10 July.
The ICRC closed its offices in the eastern province on 17 July but ICRC officials said it was still operating in northern Sri Lanka and was in talks with the government on continuing its work.
The ICRC was the only international agency with staff inside combat areas during the final stages of the conflict.
However, other agencies working in northern and eastern Sri Lanka have been allowed to continue.
“Save the Children has not received any request to scale down work. We are in fact continuing with the additional work to support the government's effort to ensure that displaced children receive an education and engage in play and recreational activities,” Menaca Calyaneratne, head of media and communications at Save the Children Sri Lanka, told IRIN.
“We are also supporting the reunification of children with families," she said.