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U.N.: 150,000 still in Sri Lankan camps

By Terence Burke and Nikita Japra, CNN
Sri Lankan war-displaced civilians peer from behind barbed wire fences surrounding their internment camp in Vavuniya
Sri Lankan war-displaced civilians peer from behind barbed wire fences surrounding their internment camp in Vavuniya
  • Returning refugee families are promised relief packages and $218
  • U.N. official sees "good progress" by Sri Lankan government despite problems
  • Sri Lankan government set January 2010 for full resettlement of refugees

United Nations (CNN) -- Nearly 150,000 refugees from Sri Lanka's civil war remain detained in Sri Lankan government internment camps, according to the United Nations' chief humanitarian affairs official, John Holmes.

Briefing the media Monday at U.N. headquarters in New York, Holmes said that the Sri Lankan government showed "good progress in some important areas" but said there are "plenty of problems still to resolve."

Holmes is freshly returned from a three-day trip to Sri Lanka where he met with government officials and war refugees to reassess that government's efforts towards resettling the estimated 280,000 civilians that have been held in internment camps there since the final stages of Sri Lanka's civil war.

The Sri Lankan government had previously promised to release all of its internally displaced people (IDPs) from the camps within a 180-day window after the end of the war in May, but missed its deadline earlier this month. It has now set a deadline of January 2010 for full resettlement.

Holmes reported that despite a late start, the release of IDPs from the camps is now occurring at a faster pace.

"If people can move freely in and out of camps, then the question of the speed of return becomes a little bit less critical," he explained, noting that some refugees are now able to sign themselves in and out of the camps for a few days at a time, if not permanently.

The refugee families allowed to return home have been promised relief packages including tin sheets for roofing from the Indian government and at least 25,000 rupees (US $218.30) from the United Nations' refugee agency. Holmes anticipated that "those needs will continue for at least six months," adding that humanitarian organizations on the ground in Sri Lanka believe a residual caseload of 20,000 to 30,000 refugees will remain homeless in January.

Holmes also expressed concern over the quality of the Sri Lankan government's recent actions on the camps.

"We would have wanted more consultation with the IDPs themselves; that's in accordance with the guiding principles for how the internally displaced should be treated," Holmes explained. He said that many of those released from the camps were returning to villages where their homes and possessions had been destroyed by acts of war and where sluggish efforts to remove landmines meant that paths were left perilous.

"But on other hand there is no disputing the general willingness of people to return and to endure what they have to endure in order to reestablish themselves," he added.

Since October 2008, the Sri Lankan government has used internment camps to detain nearly 300,000 civilians during its civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. While the Sri Lankan government justified its use of the camps as a way to protect civilians from landmines and Tamil separatists, its continued use of the camps after the end of the war in May have led some to accuse Sri Lanka of violating international humanitarian rights law.

"What we need to keep focusing on is accountability for violations for international human rights law for both sides during the conflict," Holmes advised. "We're also very keen to encourage the process of political reconciliation, which is fundamental to make sure the opportunity posed by the end of the war is not missed."