Côte d'Ivoire + 2 more

UNHCR briefing notes: Côte d'Ivoire,Sri Lanka

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Kris Janowski - Media Relations
This is a summary of what was said by the UNHCR spokesperson at today's Palais des Nations press briefing in Geneva.

1) COTE D'IVOIRE

Using canoes and buses, UNHCR staff in strife-torn western Côte d'Ivoire are set to begin the repatriation of thousands of frightened Liberian refugees this morning. Nearly 2,400 Liberian refugees have registered at our office in the town of Tabou over the past three days. They include 850 who had fled into the compound earlier this month to escape growing tensions with the local population, and hundreds of others who came from surrounding villages upon hearing of the return operation.

Today's return will require both bus transport and canoes to ferry the first 100 Liberians across the Cavaly River that forms the border between the two countries. Five buses will carry the Liberians 30 kms to the river, where the canoes will be waiting. UNHCR has requested a police security escort following days of negotiations with local villages for safe passage. Ivoirian authorities have worked hard over the past week to calm tensions between the local population and the Liberian refugees.

Assuming today's first movement is successful, we plan to increase to 200 returns per day beginning tomorrow. UNHCR staff are on hand to receive the returnees on the other side of the river, in eastern Liberia's Maryland County. The returnees will be taken to a UNHCR transit center, where they will receive assistance. Since mid-November, when the conflict in Côte d'Ivoire spread to the western border area, nearly 39,000 Liberians have returned home on their own.

We are still very concerned about one group of more than 5,000 Liberians in Nicla camp, south of Guiglo, who are afraid to return to Liberia because of their ethnicity. UNHCR has been seeking relocation for this group either in Côte d'Ivoire or to a third country. So far, we've been unable to find a safe place to take them.

In all, there may still be up to 50,000 Liberian refugees in western Côte d'Ivoire. UNHCR is also receiving requests for repatriation from Liberians elsewhere in Côte d'Ivoire, including Abidjan where some 100 have come forward.

We will update this information on our website www.unhcr.ch later this afternoon when we hear details of the return from our staff in Tabou.

2) SRI-LANKA

UNHCR officials have been meeting with Sri Lankan government representatives and Tamil Tiger rebel leaders this week to determine our possible role in returning an initial group of over 100,000 internally displaced Tamils in Sri Lanka. Also discussed during the meeting, held in the rebel-controlled town of Kilinichchi, 275 kms north of Colombo, was the future return of some 84,000 refugees living in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Last February, the Sri Lankan government and rebels from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) signed a cease-fire agreement brokered by Norway. The accord raised hopes for the return of more than 1.5 million people uprooted by a civil war that lasted almost two decades.

More than 84,000 Tamils fled to neighbouring India. In addition, hundreds of thousands sought refugee in Europe and North America, becoming one of the western world's largest groups of asylum seekers. The conflict also displaced 800,000 Sri Lankan Tamils within their own country. Since the cease-fire agreement was signed, more than 230,000 internally displaced people have spontaneously returned home while about 1,000 have come back from India.

UNHCR has welcomed the cease-fire agreement and subsequent accords on refugee returns as a breakthrough in one of South Asia's longest-running displacement crises but have we have repeatedly stressed that certain conditions must be created for the return to work.

The issues that need to be addressed include property restitution, the establishment of independent administrative and police systems in areas of return, and the issuance of identity documents to those going back. In addition to legislative steps there is a need to repair Sri Lanka's physical infrastructure that had been shattered by the war and to remove landmines that pose a lethal danger to those going back.