Last Updated: Friday, 15 December 2017, 16:28 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2002 - Sri Lanka

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 10 June 2002
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2002 - Sri Lanka , 10 June 2002, available at: [accessed 17 December 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

As many as 800,000 Sri Lankans were internally displaced at the end of 2001. Another 144,000 Sri Lankans were refugees in India. Most Sri Lankan refugees and displaced persons were Hindu Tamils, although thousands of Muslims and some Buddhist Sinhalese were also displaced.

An unknown number of Sri Lankans – though likely tens of thousands – were newly displaced during the year. Many had previously been forced from their homes, and became uprooted yet again. Some returned to their homes or temporary residences within weeks or months.

In 2001, more than 11,000 Sri Lankans applied for asylum in Europe (the largest number, 5,465, in the United Kingdom), while 2,789 applied in Canada. More than 600 Sri Lankans requested asylum in the United States during fiscal year 2001, which ended September 30. Since the late 1990s, European governments have increasingly returned rejected Tamil asylum seekers to Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka hosted 38 refugees and asylum seekers (Afghans and Iraqis) at year's end. These included eight persons recognized as refugees under the mandate of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and 30 asylum seekers whose claims were pending with UNHCR.

Sri Lanka is not a party to the UN Refugee Convention and has no domestic system for determining refugee claims. Although Sri Lanka allows UNHCR to conduct refugee status determinations, the government does not grant legal status to refugees or asylum seekers, and does not permit them to work or attend school. UNHCR pursues resettlement in other countries for recognized refugees.

Conflict and Displacement

Sri Lankan refugees and displaced persons have been uprooted by a bloody 18-year conflict that has claimed more than 64,000 lives. Government forces that primarily represent Sri Lanka's mostly Buddhist Sinhalese majority have been fighting the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a mostly Hindu separatist group that seeks independence for predominantly ethnic Tamil areas of northern and eastern Sri Lanka.

According to Human Rights Watch, both the Sri Lankan armed forces and the LTTE were implicated in serious human rights abuses during 2001, including suicide bombings by the LTTE and torture and "disappearances" by government security forces and affiliated paramilitaries. More than 2,000 combatants and 100 civilians died during the year as a result of military-LTTE clashes.

In 2000, the LTTE began a major offensive on the Jaffna Peninsula, and at one point appeared poised to take control of Jaffna, Sri Lanka's second largest city, which had been under LTTE control in the early 1990s. Although it did not recapture the city, the LTTE gained control of Elephant Pass, the narrow land bridge that connects the peninsula to the rest of Sri Lanka.

In April 2001, the Sri Lankan army launched a major offensive to extend its control over the Jaffna Peninsula. At the end of the month, government aerial attacks on the peninsula forced some 5,000 civilians to flee their homes. In July, the LTTE attacked a major air force base as well as Sri Lanka's only international airport.

UNHCR and Refugees International both estimated that 800,000 Sri Lankans remained internally displaced at the end of 2001. The Sri Lankan government reported that it was providing food assistance to nearly 705,000 internally displaced persons, including in areas controlled by the LTTE, but that it needed increased international aid to feed the remaining 100,000.

Based on these figures, the U.S. Committee for Refugees has revised its conservative estimate of the previous year that some 600,000 Sri Lankans were internally displaced, and now believes the figure to be closer to 800,000.

Of the displaced persons assisted by the government in 2001, some 528,000 were staying with family and friends, while the remaining 176,000 were living in 348 government-run camps, known as "welfare centers," in the north and east. A range of international, national, and local aid agencies provided assistance to the displaced. However, the government restricted the provision of certain relief items (including some medical supplies) in LTTE-controlled areas, fearing they would fall into LTTE hands. The restrictions hampered the work of nongovernmental organizations, especially in the Vanni region and in Jaffna.

Both the LTTE and government security forces reportedly prevented some displaced persons from seeking protection by restricting their movements. While most of the displaced are Tamil, some Sinhalese and Muslims have fled LTTE abuses and live in government-controlled areas.

UNHCR estimated that a few thousand internally displaced persons returned home, or moved to relocation sites, during the year. Some families relocated under a government program, others under a UNHCR program.

The government and the LTTE did not engage in formal talks during the year. In December, however, a change in government brought new hope for a solution. By year's end, the government and the LTTE had each announced unilateral cease-fires.

(In February 2002, the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE signed the first formal bilateral cease-fire between the two sides in seven years. Subsequently, the government eased the embargo of relief supplies in LTTE-controlled areas.)

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