In the midst of the United Nations Human Rights High Commissioner’s (UNHRC) visit to Sri Lanka, there are fresh efforts to increase the number of returnees from Tamil Nadu.
India’s Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj has agreed to consider Indian assistance in allowing refugees to return, possibly allowing for a one-off ship or resumption of ferry services, provided there are enough people willing to resume their lives in Sri Lanka. On Tuesday, 43 refugees, including 19 women, are coming back from Tamil Nadu and will leave for places such as Vavuniya, Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi.
There is also the possibility of a joint committee between the countries to speed up returnees if there are sufficient numbers.
The return, initially started in 2010, grew to more than 1,000 before deteriorating minority relations with the previous Government and logistical issues such as the suspension of ferry services from South India put an end to it. The resumption faces many challenges as well even though the initial impression is positive with many having cautious optimism of the new Government after it worked to release land in the north, free political prisoners and improve overall good governance in the country.
Return and resettlement of refugees is a condition in which all individuals displaced from their homes during conflict are assured the option for a voluntary, safe, and dignified return to their homes or resettlement into new homes and communities. Once they reach their destinations, returnees should have recourse for property restitution or compensation, and should receive strong reintegration and rehabilitation support to build their livelihoods and contribute to long-term economic and political development.
With proper support, displaced persons can serve as critical and essential human resources toward the rebuilding. Return and resettlement can represent a visible end to violent conflict, legitimise the new political order, and restore normal life for the conflict-affected population. Resolving rights to nationality, residency, and property will contribute to an effective, trustworthy, and durable State-citizen relationship.
Return and resettlement processes should focus on providing safe passage for displaced populations as they return to their homes. Upon return or relocation, displaced persons should still receive protection from continued threats of violence, harassment, intimidation, or persecution. While it is the responsibility of the Government to provide this protection, international actors may have to help maximise equal access for returnees to security, health, and other public services, along with providing judicial or legal recourse when needed.
Rebuilding lives is never an easy task. Land disputes, finding employment, reintegration and rehabilitation are just a few of the myriad challenges that could face people returning. Re-forging economic and social ties could well take years, especially when challenges such as war widows and high levels of indebtedness already exists in the north and east. Lack of investment in these areas, outside of State-led infrastructure development, has also hampered growth opportunities by limiting employment. In this aspect the private sector also has a massive role to play.
Undoubtedly, the very fact people are willing to return is a huge show of faith in the Government. Such faith must be reciprocated or it will wilt fast, denting reconciliation in the process.