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UNHCR’s involvement in Sri Lanka dates back to 1987 when the organisation was invited by the Sri Lankan Government to facilitate large-scale repatriation of Sri Lankan refugees from India.

In 1990, just as its activities were to wind down, UNHCR was requested to expand its protection and assistance to include not only the refugees immediately under its mandate, but also the people displaced internally by the abrupt resumption of Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict. This extended role was endorsed by the UN Secretary General in 1991, reaffirmed in 1997 and again confirmed in 2002 in the Government of Sri Lanka and the United Nation’s “Joint Strategy to Meet the Immediate Needs of Returned IDPs”.

In 2003, following years of advocacy to address loop holes in earlier legislation, UNHCR helped 19,000 Hill Tamils gain Sri Lankan citizenship after the Government’s passed the Grant of Citizenship to Persons of Indian Origin.  A smaller scale campaign was carried out in 2004 for Hill Tamils displaced to the North and East in the early 1980s.  UNHCR’s statelessness work continues in Sri Lanka with a gap analysis of interventions.

In December 2004, UNHCR responded immediately to the needs of people displaced by the tsunami – an exceptional decision based on the scale of the disaster and the organisation’s capacity, experience, presence and expertise in Sri Lanka.

Relief distributions of plastic sheeting, tents and kitchen sets, were followed by UNHCR constructing 4,500 temporary shelters.  As National Lead Agency in Tsunami Transitional Shelter, UNHCR also co-ordinated and supported the Government’s Transitional Shelter Project (TAP) and more than 100 implementing organisations, to ensure that the required 55,000 transitional shelters were constructed by the end-2005.  In November 2005, UNHCR handed over this role to the Government of Sri Lanka, signaling the end to its involvement in tsunami-focused activities.

While the tsunami necessitated an immediate response and focused considerable attention on the tsunami displaced, UNHCR stands firmly by the principle of equity for all internally displaced persons (IDPs).  UNHCR’s work in 2006 will focus on the needs of the conflict displaced, advocating for equity in assistance to IDP populations regardless of the reason for their displacement.  

The UN Refugee Agency’s current work in Sri Lanka is multi-faceted, ranging in scope from providing protection for internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugee status determination (RSD) for third country nationals seeking asylum in Sri Lanka, material assistance to IDPs and returnees, community services and work against sexual and gender based violence, to the co-ordination of humanitarian intervention for people displaced by the conflict.

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