The displacement in 2008 of some 230,000 people in the northern part of the country under the control of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has overshadowed the largely peaceful resettlement of significant numbers of IDPs to their villages in the east, the agency said in a statement released on 6 November.
"Sri Lanka's east experienced a similar wave of displacement two years ago when government forces regained LTTE-held territories in the region," UNHCR said. "By the end of March 2007, some 170,000 people were reportedly displaced across Batticaloa and Trincomalee Districts."
The UN agency said only 15,500 IDPs still remained in the two districts and the return process "has seen substantial improvements, thanks to interventions by the UN Refugee Agency and other humanitarian agencies operating in the east".
Relief officials in Batticaloa told IRIN a number of IDPs were set to return home this week. "There is a group of IDPs who will return to the villages that they left in early 2007," Basil Sylvester, the district coordinator for Batticaloa District for the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA), an umbrella body of international and national relief agencies, told IRIN.
The UNHCR said that when the return process began in March 2007 some agencies were concerned at the swift pace of the return process. "In the past, some returns were rushed, but the process has seen substantial improvements since its inception," Jens Hesemann, head of UNHCR's field office in Batticaloa, said in the statement.
Returnees visit their former villages before they return, UNHCR stated, giving IDPs the opportunity to raise their concerns with local public officials and military commanders.
During one such recent visit, the IDPs raised concerns over security, UNHCR stated.
"Some of these villages are in remote areas that cannot be accessed very easily or quickly, so protection is still very much on their minds," CHA's Sylvester told IRIN.
The recent rise in violence targeting the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP), a breakaway group from the Tamil Tigers and the dominant pro-government group, in the east has also raised concerns regarding the fragile peace.
"Security-related restrictions on civilian movement still prevail [in the east]," the World Bank said in its Country Assistance Strategy 2009-2012 released on 24 July. "The presence of paramilitary groups, which are torn by internal rivalries, is said to be an impediment to the restoration of civilian life."
Sylvester said the villages still needed infrastructure development. "These places have suffered due to continuous conflict for over two decades," he said. "The roads are in a bad shape, the schools and hospitals need repair and the village economies will need assistance to start up again."
UNHCR also said that water and sanitation, housing and the lack of livelihoods were being addressed by UN agencies and NGOs.
"UNHCR continues to monitor returns, along with the conditions in the existing 17 IDP sites [in the east]," Axel Bisschop, UNHCR senior programme officer in Colombo, said in the statement. "In coordination with our partners, we are also distributing relief items and carrying out regular protection monitoring in both the IDP sites and return areas."