UNHCR is expecting the first returns of Sri Lankan refugees by commercial ferry from India to start on Wednesday, 12th October. The returns are part of a voluntary, facilitated repatriation programme, supported by the governments of both India and Sri Lanka. A welcoming ceremony at Colombo port is planned with Sri Lankan government officials, port and shipping authorities and UNHCR.

Until now, all refugee returns to Sri Lanka have been by air. The numbers returning in this first “trial run” are small – 37 individuals representing 15 families. However, the return by sea is significant as UNHCR is hearing from Sri Lankan refugees in India that many are waiting for ferry returns in order to transport their household possessions with them. Each person can bring up to 150 kilogrammes of belongings.

The commercial ferry link between the port of Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu and Colombo in Sri Lanka and India reopened earlier this year paving the way for refugees to return by sea instead of air.

Since the conflict ended in May 2009, Sri Lankan refugees have been steadily returning back to their home country, mainly from India with a few from other countries. Over 1,400 refugees have returned so far this year, compared to 2,054 refugees in 2010.

UNHCR’s facilitated voluntary repatriation programme assists refugees who tell us they want to return home. The main reasons they give for return is that the conflict has ended, and that they wish to reunite with family and friends and claim their land. Refugees tell us the major problems they face on return to Sri Lanka have been earning a living, and finding shelter.

UNHCR assists refugees once they return with a reintegration grant and transport allowance to help them get back home.

According to Indian government figures, some 69,000 Sri Lankan refugees are living in 112 camps in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.

UNHCR’s most recent statistics show there are 141,063 Sri Lankan refugees in 65 countries, with the majority in India, followed by France, Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Australia, Malaysia, the United States and Italy.