Three-and-a-half years after Sri Lanka’s civil war ended, fresh challenges have emerged as people continue to return home. The UN refugee agency is working with local authorities and partners to support sustainable returns by addressing some of these problems, including housing, land and property.
The 26-year-long conflict, which ended in May 2009, left basic services in tatters, destroyed homes and infrastructure, and caused hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes in the north and east. As they fled, many families lost key documents, including property title deeds.
With local government services virtually non-existent at the time of return, they were unable to obtain copies of documents or could not afford to do so. That meant many people could not prove that they owned their land.
“Land documentation is critical for these families to restart their lives and reintegrate in their villages,” said Michael Zwack, UNHCR’s representative in Sri Lanka. “Without land deeds, returnee families cannot obtain the clearance to rebuild their homes or prove ownership in order to access housing assistance. Documents are also essential for families to claim compensation for private land that has been used for state purposes.”
To help tackle this thorny problem, the UN refugee agency has provided computers, photocopiers, scanners and fax machines to 45 local government offices dealing with land documentation and records in the Mannar, Jaffna, Vavuniya, Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi districts. These will allow officials to process land claims and issue fresh documentation.
UNHCR, following discussion with the Registrar General’s Department, will also arrange computer servers for 14 sub-offices in the north to help decentralize the process of issuing and storing documentation. The servers will also help link the offices and keep information on claims and titles.
“The responsibility of meeting land and civil documentation needs generally lies with the Registrar General’s Department. These functions are decentralized to the local government offices and the land registries in the districts,” explained Zwack. “So while this equipment is provided primarily to help streamline the application process for land documentation, it also helps streamline the general functions and increase the efficiency of the local government offices.”
Civil servants dealing with land issues welcomed the new equipment. Nadarajah Thurilinganathan, who heads the local government office in Maruthurankery, said chaos had ensued in 2006 when they had to move to a safer area of Jaffna district when the fighting came close.
“During the relocation process, we lost all the documentation, including copies of land deeds belonging to the people in this area,” he said. “But thanks to this equipment we are now able to liaise with the [land] survey department and obtain new copies of the deeds.”
UNHCR, through local partner organizations, is also helping in the demarcation process, so that returnees can cordon off their area and build protective fences. The agency funds transportation costs for government survey experts sent to demarcate property in remote rural areas.
This process is especially important for people like Yoganathan Selvarani, 36, who lives with her six children while her husband works overseas. Selvarani and her family are from a village close to the coast in Jaffna’s Aliyavalai area.
They left the village after the area was hit by the Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004 and moved further inland. They then experienced multiple displacements when the civil war resumed and finally returned two years ago.
“Even though we were living on the land, it was not properly demarcated so I couldn’t put up a fence,” said Selvarani, adding that survey department staff visited earlier this year and set up pegs marking the boundaries. “Since my husband isn’t here, a fence is essential to cordon off my land and provide some semblance of security,” she said, adding: “We couldn’t build it earlier without knowing exactly where the land’s boundaries are.” She has since built a fence with her brother’s help.
Targeted actions such as these are going a long way to ensure that smaller issues are identified and addressed pre-emptively. But beyond these practical measures, there is still an urgent need for a comprehensive nationwide policy on compensation and restitution for families whose private lands have been used for state purposes. Accelerated procedures to establish land claims and the establishment of alternate dispute resolution mechanisms could help to ensure a sustainable return of the displaced.
More than 238,000 internally displaced people and 6,300 refugees have returned home in Sri Lanka since May 2009.