The United Nations refugee agency today began an emergency airlift operation targeting the some 150,000 people uprooted by intense armed conflict between Government forces and separatist Tamil rebels in Sri Lanka, as the world body’s top relief official continues his visit to the South Asian nation.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), there are at least 50,000 people still trapped in the conflict zone, which has shrunk to less than 10 square kilometres.
A plane carrying 2,850 family-size tents arrived in Colombo from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stockpile in Dubai to help accommodate the internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the north-east.
In an effort to ramp up its already sizeable humanitarian operations in Sri Lanka, High Commissioner António Guterres has approved the immediate release of an extra $2 million to provide shelter, protection and other aid for civilians fleeing the conflict zone.
On top of the funding, UNHCR is dispatching a second emergency team to strengthen the 120 existing staff in seven offices around the island nation.
Overcrowding at the 38 makeshift camps for IDPs is becoming a major worry. In one location eight to 10 people are sharing shelters designed for four or five and many IDPs in the camps have no shelter from the sweltering heat, according to a press release issued by UNHCR.
The agency reports that the Government has agreed to provide public buildings and more land to accommodate new arrivals in Mannar and Trincomalee, Jaffna and Vavuniya.
According to the Government, an area of approximately 100 acres has been identified in Trincomalee for a site to accommodate up to 20,000 people, where UNHCR will assist with emergency shelter support and the distribution of non-food items.
Aid workers have told UNHCR that some IDPs have not eaten for days and cite growing problems of hunger, lack of transport to move the sick to hospitals, and a shortage of medical personnel.
Meanwhile, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes yesterday met with the UN Country Team, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and donors in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, to discuss humanitarian concerns.
Among the concerns raised by the UN team were the week-long delay in shipping more than 1,000 tons of food to the area, the need to accelerate assistance for those in transit to IDP camps, and the need to protect unaccompanied minors, especially from psycho-social trauma and the risk of sexual and gender-based violence.
In meetings with government officials, Mr. Holmes called for a pause in fighting to conduct a humanitarian assessment of the conflict zone and to deliver in emergency supplies including food and medication.
He also underscored the need for access to IDPs in transit and concern over congestion in camps in Vavuniya, while urging the Government to allow more people to live with host families, as well as to release the 13 UN staff members who have been confined to the camps.
Mr. Holmes, who is also the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, today travelled to the Vavuniya and Omanthai screening points, and visited the Manik Farm camp for IDPs, where he was able to speak to some of the 38,000-40,000 displaced.
Last week, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced that he was dispatching a UN humanitarian team to the conflict zone, calling for the mission to be allowed into the area as soon as possible.