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    UNHCR Welcomes Greater Freedom for Sri Lankan Internees

    But it is concerned that many of these releases may only be temporary

    Lisa Schlein

    The United Nations refugee agency welcomes the Sri Lankan government's decision to allow increased freedom of movement for some 135,000 internally displaced people in 20 internment camps.  But it is concerned that many of these releases may only be temporary. 

    The U.N. refugee agency says it is encouraged Sri Lankan authorities finally have allowed tens of thousands of Tamils to leave their internment camps freely.

    The international community has criticized the Sri Lankan government for restricting the movement of about one-quarter million Tamils.  They have been confined to camps since May when the government declared its long-running civil war with the Tamil Tiger rebels officially over.

    U.N. refugee spokesman, Andrej Mahecic, says field staff reports thousands of internally displaced people have left their camps and people are continuing to leave. "Generally, IDPs (internally displaced persons) who wish to leave the camps are provided with a pass issued by the local authorities.  These documents include details such as the district of origin, date of departure, and date of return to the camp, temporary address for those who will remain away from the camps overnight and details of family members.  This pass will also represent some form of identification for those who do not yet have their national identity card," he said.

    Mahecic says UNHCR teams tell him many people left their belongings in the camps.  He says this indicates they intend to return there. 

    He says some of those interviewed told the UNHCR they wanted to visit friends and relatives in other camps in Vavunya town, and the centers where those suspected of having links with the Tamil Tigers are being held. "While authorities say that there is no time limitation to the freedom of movement, there were reports that IDPs would only be allowed to stay away from the camps up to 10 days.  Many are also scheduled to return to areas of origin in the coming days and weeks under the government-organized return plan.  Our teams also report, in general, people are happy to go back to their areas of origin where more basic services, such as health clinics and schools are reopening," he said.

    The UNHCR says it hopes this new freedom of movement continues.  It says it also hopes de-mining efforts keep pace with the rapid rate of returns.  It says it will continue to follow up on these issues with the authorities.

    The UNHCR is providing money for shelter and non-food relief items to all returning families to help them get resettled in their homes.  Mahecic says the UNHCR is monitoring the situation and conditions in the areas of return to identify gaps in assistance.
     

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