New York, NY (BBN)- The United Nations refugee agency voiced sadness on Tuesday at the deaths of eight Sri Lankans who drowned while attempting to return to their homeland by boat from southern India.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson William Spindler said the eight people who drowned last Friday were part of a group of 13 Sri Lankans who had each paid about 6,000 Indian rupees (about $140) to a local boatman for the journey from Tamil Nadu state in India to the northern Sri Lankan town of Talaimannar, according to a UN press statement.

The returning refugees drowned after the boat capsized on the high seas, Mr. Spindler said, adding that that one survivor told local media that she preferred to cross illegally because it was difficult to obtain the necessary clearances to leave.

Since 2006 at least 22,000 Sri Lankans have fled conflict in their homeland between Government forces and members of the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and sought asylum in India. An estimated 73,000 Sri Lankan refugees now live in 117 separate camps scattered across southern India.

Northern Sri Lanka has been particularly hard hit in the most recent fighting and most of the remaining UN staff in the town of Kilinochchi have now been relocated to Vavuniya after a government request.

So far, some 29 staff have moved to Vavuniya, joining colleagues who relocated earlier this week and also staff from non-governmental organizations (NGOs), UN spokesperson Marie Okabe told reporters.

She said 21 UN national staff remain in Kilinochchi, and they are staff who were not given passes by the LTTE or chose to stay with family members who could not obtain passes.

BBN/SI/SS/AD-17September08-11:51 AM