Page last updated at 18:15 GMT, Thursday, 19 November 2009

UN confirms Tamil camps exodus

UN aid chief John Holmes speaking with resettled internally displaced people
UN aid chief John Holmes says those who have returned are glad

UN humanitarian chief John Holmes has confirmed that more than half the Tamils who were in refugee camps in northern Sri Lanka have now left them.

The camps were set up to house Tamils who fled the final stages of a 25-year civil war between troops and Tamil Tiger rebels, which ended in May.

Mr Holmes, who has just visited the area, said fewer than 135,000 out of 300,000 people were still in the camps.

The government had been under pressure to speed up their resettlement.

Mr Holmes said it was clear those who had been able to go home were glad to be going back to their villages.

"I welcome very much the recent paces of releases and returns of internally displaced people from the camps. It's very good to see that the number of people in the Menik Farm camp, the main camp, is now just under half what it was at its peak," he told the BBC.

"That process of releases and returns is continuing and… that's extremely welcome."

'Lack of consultation'

He expressed the hope that the issue of freedom of movement for those remaining in the camps would be tackled soon - and said the Sri Lankan government had indicated some flexibility on this.

And he still had concerns about the nature of the returns process; there had been some lack of consultation with the Tamils themselves, and with the UN.

Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Rohita Bogollagama (l) and UN humanitarian affairs chief John Holmes
It has been a difficult year for relations between Sri Lanka and the UN

Mr Holmes said the safety of returnees, and their access to basic services, had to be ensured.

"The places I saw have got those basic services," he said, although he added that areas people were returning to needed to be "properly de-mined and certified as de-mined".

Mr Holmes admitted it would be years before normality returned to northern Sri Lanka. He said he was shocked at the number of ruined buildings.

"[People] face major problems in terms of shelter. Most of the houses I think which people have left, they find in ruins when they return so there are big issues there," he said.


Mr Holmes' trip has taken in the areas most scarred by the conflict and its aftermath - including the displacement camps near Vavuniya, and Jaffna, once held by the Tamil Tiger rebels.

The rebels started fighting in the 1970s for a separate state in Sri Lanka's north and east, arguing that Tamils had been discriminated against by successive majority Sinhalese governments.

Resettlement from the camps has been so rapid that the Tamil National Alliance, a pro-Tiger party, has accused the government of abandoning people without proper infrastructure.

Schools and other facilities in Vavuniya town are now reported to be overcrowded.

The BBC's Charles Haviland in Colombo says overall this was an upbeat assessment from John Holmes after what has been a difficult year in UN-Sri Lankan relations.

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