Last Updated: Monday, 22 January 2018, 12:53 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2003 - Sri Lanka

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 June 2003
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2003 - Sri Lanka , 1 June 2003, available at: [accessed 23 January 2018]
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.

An estimated 563,000 Sri Lankans were internally displaced at the end of 2002. Another 143,000 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.

A February 2002 cease-fire brought the prospect of peace to Sri Lanka after decades of civil war, allowing some 237,000 internally displaced persons to return home and some 1,000 refugees to return from India.

In 2002, nearly 11,000 Sri Lankans applied for asylum elsewhere, including more than 3,000 in the United Kingdom, nearly 2,000 in France, and more than 1,500 in Canada.

Sri Lanka hosted 40 refugees and asylum seekers (mostly Iraqis and Afghans) at year's end. These included 27 persons recognized as refugees by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and 13 whose claims were pending.

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.

During the year, Sri Lanka forcibly returned two Iranian asylum seekers to Singapore, the country from which they had just arrived by plane, after the asylum seekers called UNHCR. UNHCR was attempting to locate an interpreter when the returns happened.

Conflict and Displacement

Sri Lankan refugees and displaced persons have been uprooted by a bloody 19-year conflict that began in 1983 and claimed nearly 65,000 lives before a Norway-brokered bilateral cease-fire was declared in February 2002. Government forces that primarily represent Sri Lanka's mostly Buddhist Sinhalese majority have fought the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a mostly Hindu separatist group that has sought independence for predominantly ethnic Tamil areas of northern and eastern Sri Lanka.

As a result of the conflict, at least 800,000 Sri Lankans were internally displaced at the end of 2001, before the cease-fire. An estimated 563,000 remained displaced at the end of 2002, despite significant progress toward peace during the year.

The February 2002 truce between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE was the first formal bilateral cease-fire between the two sides in seven years. Pursuant to the agreement, the parties held five rounds of peace talks in 2002, during which the rebels agreed to accept regional autonomy rather than a separate state. A sixth round of negotiations was set for March 2003.

Soon after signing the cease-fire, the government eased an embargo on relief supplies in LTTE-areas, which had hampered the work of non-governmental organizations, especially in the Vanni region and in Jaffna.

While most persons displaced by the conflict have been Tamil, some Sinhalese and Muslims have fled LTTE abuses, including suicide bombings, and live in government-controlled areas.

Of the displaced persons assisted by the government in 2002, most were staying with family and friends, while others lived in 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.

UNHCR estimated that 237,000 internally displaced persons returned home spontaneously during the year, while about 1,000 Sri Lankan refugees returned from India – including 70 with UNHCR assistance. At year's end, UNHCR said that conditions in Sri Lanka were not yet conducive for a large-scale, organized return of refugees or internally displaced persons, particularly since landmines posed a significant threat. However, the agency provided assistance to the spontaneous returnees and monitored their safety.

Numerous international aid groups had initiated projects for the relief and development of conflict-affected areas of Sri Lanka, including the relocation and reintegration of displaced persons. In addition, UNHCR and the UN Commission on Human Rights were identifying steps to ensure property restitution or compensation for returnees.

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