Colombo: The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has helped more than 7,000 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees return from India and get settled in their ancestral homes here, according to UNHCR’s Representative in Lanka, Golam Abbas.
Giving details of the UNHCR’s role, Abbas said that his staff meet refugee returnees at the airport and help them with the immigration, security and customs formalities. The UNHCR helps them open accounts in the state-owned Bank of Ceylon where it deposits some money to help them meet initial reintegration expenses, such as purchasing household goods or repairing damaged houses.
The returnees are given a transport grant to help them travel from the airport to their towns or villages of origin in dignity. Once settled, returnees are advised to register with the nearest UNHCR field office which will monitor resettlement and provide necessary assistance.
“UNHCR refers persons with special needs (e.g. persons with disabilities and elderly persons) to specialized institutions. Similarly, it refers those in need of legal counseling, civil documentation support, livelihood and education assistance to the relevant government authorities or other organizations that can provide targeted assistance,” Abbas said.
This week, 65 refugees arrived from Tiruchy and Madurai, facilitated by UNHCR.
Stressing the need for the resumption of the ferry service between India and Lanka, Abbas said: “The ferry service would be of enormous support to those who wish to return. UNHCR Sri Lanka has taken up the need for the resumption of ferry service with the relevant authorities in Sri Lanka.”
“It is only in a ferry that a whole refugee family can move with all its household goods and moveable properties,” said S.Sooriyakumari of the relief agency Organization for Elangai Refugee Rehabilitation (OfERR).
India has been pressing for a ferry service between Rameswaram and Thalaimannar for years. But Colombo has been against it, apparently for security reasons. Because the Tamil Nadu government was not keen on a Turicorin-Colombo service, New Delhi toyed with the idea of having a Kochi-Colombo service. However, in mid 2011, the Tuticorin-Colombo service was inaugurated.
But the service, run by a Gulf-based Indian company, had to be wound up in a year because it was uneconomical. The vessel was too big and posh for the small numbers who patronized it. If the service is to serve indigent refugees and middle class travelers, it has to be run by state agencies, shipping business sources said.
However, doubts still remain about the ferry’s resumption. New Delhi is still pushing for the Rameswaram-Thalaimannar service as Prime Minister Narendra Modi did during his recent visit to Lanka. But the Tamil Nadu government is yet to show enthusiasm. And Colombo will have to shed its fears about a massive Indian influx and Sri Lankan Airlines its fears about loss of business in the lucrative Indian circuit.