Landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) are a key obstacle to the return of thousands of conflict-displaced to their homes in northern Sri Lanka, say government and UN officials.
The government estimates over 1.5 million landmines and UXO contaminate more than 400sqkm in the north.
“Humanitarian demining and the removal of UXO are prerequisites for the delivery of humanitarian assistance, early recovery and development in conflict-affected areas,” Andrej Mahecic, a spokesman for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said in Geneva on 6 November.
“Demining also enables infrastructure development and the resumption of social services and livelihoods,” he said.
Nearly 300,000 people fled fighting in the northeast in the final months of the 26-year civil war between government forces and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and were placed in a string of government-run camps in the north.
Of these, more than 108,000 have been resettled thus far, according to government figures, with tens of thousand waiting to be resettled in the coming weeks.
|I think donors would be happier to help the civilians returning to their villages than help them remain at welfare camps indefinitely|
Most of the returns have been to Jaffna, Vavuniya, Mannar, Mullaitivu, Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Ampara districts, with smaller numbers to Polonnaruwa District, UNHCR said.
“While our concern was to ensure the speedy resettlement of the IDPs, their safety was also of paramount importance to the government,” Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama told diplomats one day earlier.
According to the UN, the need for re-establishing basic infrastructure and demining means that a significant number of the displaced - mainly from Kilinochi and Mullaitivu districts - would be unable to return home for several months.
“This is a huge challenge. The intensity of contamination depends on the intensity of the fighting,” Neil Buhne, the UN resident and humanitarian coordinator for Sri Lanka, told IRIN.
“In some areas there is no clear idea about the number of mines or other ordnance. Sometimes you can’t give a clean bill to areas that have been demined.”
|Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama says de-mining must be completed in those areas where people are returning|
In the past, the UN has expressed frustration over the possibility that many of the war-displaced would remain in government camps indefinitely, and warned of donor lethargy.
“I think donors would be happier to help the civilians returning to their villages than help them remain at welfare camps indefinitely,” Buhne said.
Colombo has recently imported new equipment to accelerate the demining effort. According to Bogollagama, equipment worth US$4 million has been imported from Slovakia and Croatia which is capable of clearing 5,000 square metres per day.
On 7 November, UNHCR also handed over five demining machines to the Sri Lankan government.
“The equipment will be immediately dispatched to the return areas in Sri Lanka’s north, where demining is being carried out by the Sri Lankan government together with UNDP [UN Development Programme] and other international and local demining actors,” said Mahecic.
Buhne also noted that sustained assistance would be needed to help the returnees: “There is a lot more to be done to improve the socio-economic standards of these people… Some of these people have been on the run [for] over a year and displaced multiple times. We need to help them regain their livelihoods and a sense of normalcy.”
“Now that a significant number of the IDPs have been resettled, we have to focus on their livelihood development, provide them with employment opportunities or help [them] return to their previous occupations and trade,” said Bogollagama.
|There are an estimated 1.5 million landmines and UXO in the north|
World Vision in funding plea
Meanwhile, other relief agencies like World Vision said urgent funds were needed to support the accelerated return process.
In a statement on 6 November, the agency said it urgently needed US$2 million to help the current wave of returns: "We have been advocating for returns to happen as soon as possible and now that it is finally taking place, it is time for those who pledged to support the return to honour those commitments," World Vision Sri Lanka director Suresh Bartlett said.
At least, 2,000 people were returning to their villages daily, the NGO said.
"We all have a moral responsibility to assist these fractured communities… We should not allow the situation to ever return to the era of bitter mistrust and conflict," Bartlett said.
Following recent returns, some 163,000 displaced people are still in camps where conditions are deteriorating, UNHCR said on 6 November.