By Ranil WIJAYAPALA

Many Sri Lankans who left in fear of terrorism have begun returning home as they feel the country is safe. According to latest UNHCR statistics a total of 146,098 Sri Lankan refugees live in 64 countries.
India, France, Canada, Germany, UK, Switzerland, Malaysia, Australia, the United States and Italy are the top 10 countries hosting Sri Lankan refugees. The UNHCR assisted many Sri Lankan refugees living in India to return. The UNHCR Deputy Representative in Sri Lanka Jennifer Pagonis says that Sri Lankan refugees in Malaysia and Hong Kong say they are seriously thinking of returning and that more Sri Lankan refugees may return in the year 2011. Their decision should be voluntary. As armed conflict has ceased in the North, it is important that persons seeking asylum take this positive development into account. She also says that UNHCR Headquarters recommends asylum-seekers from Sri Lanka need no longer be recognized as refugees solely on the basis of the ‘extended definition’ (i.e. due to generalised violence). Following is the text of the interview the Sunday Observer had with Jennifer Pagonis.
Q: What is UNHCR’s final count on the Sri Lankan refugees living in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere in India and also refugees who returned to Sri Lanka after May 2009?
A: According to Indian government figures end-July 2010, there are 71,654 Sri Lankan refugees living in some 112 camps and 32,467 living outside.
The latest figures from Jan – September 30 show that 1,280 refugees returned voluntarily from India with UNHCR facilitated returns compared to 843 in all of 2009. Also this year, over 1,000 refugees approached UNHCR offices in Sri Lanka to report that they had returned on their own accord – (spontaneous returns). The number of refugee returns are increasing and UNHCR thinks this trend will continue.
Q: What is the status of Sri Lankans who had sought UNHCR refugee status living in other countries? Are they also willing to return?
A: It’s not easy to predict how many Sri Lankan refugees will want to return home. Many have been away for years and have established themselves elsewhere. But others will want to come home. No one wants to be a refugee and usually there is a strong desire of refugees to return home when they feel it is safe. Refugees want to be reunited with their families and friends and live in their own country. A year after the conflict, some Sri Lankan refugees in Malaysia and Hong Kong say they are seriously thinking of coming home. It is a process that takes time as refugees look at conditions in their home area, weigh it up to return.
According to UNHCR’s most recent statistics for end-June 2010, – gathered from governments and also from UNHCR – a total of 146,098 Sri Lankan refugees are in 64 countries. India, France, Canada, Germany, UK, Switzerland, Malaysia, Australia, the United States and Italy are the top 10 countries hosting Sri Lankan refugees.
Q: What kind of trend do you observe among Sri Lankan refugees in India?
A: This year we estimate there may be around 2,000 refugees that UNHCR will help return home, and around 3,000 spontaneous returnees that later approach UNHCR, Sri Lanka for help in restarting their lives.
But, we have to be cautious about figures. Without full access to the refugee camps in Tamil Nadu, it is difficult for UNHCR to get an accurate picture of the wishes of refugees to return. Many may be well integrated into their lives in Tamil Nadu and not wish to return.
Q: Does UNHCR have direct access to the camps where Sri Lankan refugees live? If not, how do you deal with Sri Lankan refugees living there?
A: UNHCR has access to the Sri Lankan refugees in India. However, UNHCR does not have access to work in the Sri Lankan refugee camps in Tamil Nadu. These camps were established by the Indian government and are directly managed by the authorities. Refugees who wish to repatriate can contact UNHCR’s office in Chennai where we can provide assistance to help them return.
Q: There are contradicting reports – some wish to return while some are reluctant to do so.
What is UNHCR’s observation on these reports? Have you made any survey on those lines?
A: The decision to return is an individual one. Since the end of the conflict last year, UNHCR has seen an increase in the numbers of Sri Lankan refugees in India who wish to return home. However, it is always difficult to predict with any certainty how refugees will react to the end of a conflict in their country. But, in UNHCR’s wide experience around the globe with voluntary repatriation, refugees frequently want to return home as soon as they possibly can. In one of the largest repatriation operations in the world, more than 3.5 million Afghans have returned home to Afghanistan from Pakistan with UNHCR help since 2002. Some develop family ties in the country of asylum or they have continuing fears of persecution in the country of origin-and need to remain in the country of asylum or to resettle in a third country. That is why it is essential that all repatriation movements are voluntary ones.
Q: The UNHCR a few months back made a statement that Sri Lanka is safe for refugee return. What steps have you taken to convey this message to the refugees living there?
A: At this stage UNHCR is not actively encouraging the return of refugees to Sri Lanka. Our current task is to ensure that Sri Lankan refugees abroad have up to date information about the situation in their areas of origin, and to help them come home if and when they decide to return. When they decide they want to come home to Sri Lanka, we help them do so. We call this ‘facilitated’ voluntary repatriation. In fact, most voluntary repatriations worldwide are facilitated, rather than promoted.
Q: In which way are you extending support to refugees to return and resettle in their villages?
A: Currently, those returning under UNHCR’s facilitated voluntary repatriation program are met at the airport by a UNHCR staff member.
They receive a modest transport grant from UNHCR to help them make their own arrangements to get from the airport to their home area.
After arriving in their home area, they can contact the nearest UNHCR local office for a standard package of non-food items (NFIs) to help them with the basic essentials to restart their lives such as mosquito nets, bucket, jerry can, plastic mats, plastic sheets, cooking set. (the same kit as for IDP returnees).
UNHCR local offices also give advice on where to go to obtain replacement legal documentation such as birth certificates, which can be a big concern for refugees. We are currently in discussion with relevant national authorities about how we can better support the government offices who issue these documents in the areas of largest numbers of returns.
UNHCR cannot meet refugees returning spontaneously at the airport as these refugees return on their own without notice to us. Similarly, we are unable to provide such returnees with an onward transport grant.
Q: There may be thousands of Tamil refugees who are without any travel documents living in those refugee camps in India with the hope of returning to their country. How is UNHCR supporting those refugees to return to their country through legal channels?
A: The issuance or replacement of travel documents is carried out by the Government of Sri Lanka. We understand this is a fairly straightforward process. Refugees who wish to return can contact the Sri Lankan Deputy High Commissioner’s office in Chennai to obtain their one-way emergency travel documents.
Q: There were many instances in which some refugees tried to return to the country by illegal means paying exorbitant prices to human smugglers. What steps can UNHCR take to avoid such situations? What is your message to those refugees?
A: Due to the positive developments in Sri Lanka’s security situation, UNHCR is streamlining the return process to help Sri Lankan refugees in India who wish to return home. We hope that this will reduce delays and make the return process easier, so that they would not have to resort to other means.
Q: There may be children born to refugees during their stay in India. What would be the plight of these children if they were to return?
A: Generally Sri Lankans abroad are required to register the birth of a child in the Sri Lankan mission in that country. For refugee families in India, this means registering the birth with the Sri Lankan Deputy High Commissioner’s Office in Chennai. Once they return to Sri Lanka, the families are also required to validate these registrations. At the same time, the Government of Sri Lanka has taken several positive steps to resolve citizenship issues among the Sri Lankan refugee population in Chennai.
Q: What sort of dialogue does the UNHCR now have with the Indian Government, the Provincial Government and also with the Sri Lankan Government with regard to the return of Sri Lankan refugees?
A: UNHCR continues to be in close dialogue with both the Sri Lankan and Indian Governments on the situation of Sri Lankan refugees in Chennai.
Q: How long would it take for all Sri Lankan refugees to return to their country?
A: We are trying to assist all who wish to return. Others may wish to wait.
Some may wish to remain in the current countries of asylum, having developed strong links there over the years.
Q: There are certain Tamil groups and civilians still seeking refugee status in other countries. What is UNHCR’s observation on those people?
A: It is UNHCR’s position that all claims filed by asylum-seekers from Sri Lanka should be examined and decided upon on the basis of individual merit and the need for international protection.
Armed conflict has now ceased in the North, and it is important that persons deciding asylum applications today take into account this positive development.
UNHCR Headquarters globally recommends that asylum-seekers from Sri Lanka need no longer be recognized as refugees solely on the basis of the “extended definition” (i.e. due to generalized violence).
Claims should instead be considered on the basis of a well-founded fear of being persecuted on one of the five grounds, political opinion, nationality, religion, race or membership of a particular social group.
UNHCR’s recently issued eligibility guidelines (June 2010) elaborate on the main profiles of types of people who may continue to be at risk of persecution.
Source: The Sunday Observer – 10.10.2010