A dual dilemma

Saturday, 7 July 2012 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The number of Sri Lankan refugees returning home with the UNHCR’s help dropped during the first half of 2012, compared with the same period last year. This, together with the rising number of asylum seekers, contributes to the conundrum of making people feel at home in Sri Lanka.

The latest statistics show that 662 individuals voluntarily returned to Sri Lanka with the UNHCR’s help during the first six months of this year to end-June, nearly a third less than the same period in 2011, when 962 refugees returned.  A total of 1,728 Sri Lankan refugees returned under the UNHCR’s facilitated voluntary repatriation programme in 2011.

The UNHCR has insisted that it is difficult to determine why the numbers of refugees returning to Sri Lanka have fallen since it is an individual decision to return home based on individual considerations. Yet, the fact that fewer refugees are returning and more asylum seekers are leaving Sri Lanka three years after the end of the war warrants some consideration.

The overwhelming majority of refugees are returning from Indian Government-run refugee camps in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, with a handful returning from Malaysia, Georgia and Hong Kong. The refugees are mainly returning to Trincomalee, Mannar, Vavuniya and Jaffna Districts, with smaller numbers returning to Kilinochchi, Batticaloa, Colombo, Mullaitivu, Puttalam and Kandy.

According to the UNHCR’s statistics, at end-2011, there were 68,152 Sri Lankan refugees living in 112 camps in Tamil Nadu and another 32,467 living outside the camps. Worldwide there are more than 136,000 Sri Lankan refugees living in 65 countries.

On one hand, many of the internally displaced in the country have made strides towards a normal life, but, on the other, many are yet to return to their lands of origin and most of them face long-term challenges of livelihood as well as holistic security.

There is a strong need to find economical ways of bringing these people back home, especially after the ferry service between India and Sri Lanka was stopped, and assisting them to re-establish themselves in their former homes. Greater awareness of the security environment in the north and east as well as economic opportunities in these areas could encourage them to return to Sri Lanka. 

However, they must be assured of physical and social security. This means that implementation of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) recommendations as well as other mechanisms such as the impartial rule of law and political autonomy will go a long way in assuaging their fears of being victimised.

Sri Lanka is also among countries hosting refugees and asylum seekers, with 88 refugees and 243 asylum seekers registered with the UNHCR, according to its mid-June figures. These numbers are small compared with other Asian countries such as Pakistan, which hosts some 1.7 million refugees.

Nonetheless, there are ever-increasing numbers of Sri Lankans attempting to illegally crossover into other countries, particularly Australia, which means that they are contributing to increasing the number of refugees in the world. This is feeding a growing market for human smuggling or trafficking that is a dangerous trend that must be arrested to prevent the public being led astray and victimised.

One could argue that this is the new frontier of managing refugees in Sri Lanka for the island is now creating refugees by means other than war. Economic and social causes are the main reasons for this and while it is not as big a problem as the conflict, there is a common need to develop long-term solutions for both the asylum seekers and internally displaced within Sri Lanka.