Sri Lanka coping with twin humanitarian crises, top UN official says on visit

28 April 2009
UN warns of deteriorating humanitarian conditions in Sri Lanka's north-eastern conflict zone

The United Nations humanitarian chief warned today that Sri Lanka faces what amounts to two distinct crises, as he toured camps for people who fled fighting in the country’s north between Government troops and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

“There are still tens of thousands of people trapped on a small patch of territory in the north, with the LTTE refusing to let them leave, and with fighting continuing,” said Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes.

“The second crisis is the swollen camps that are filling up with 200,000 people who fled the fighting, many in very poor condition, with more likely on the way soon,” he added.

Mr. Holmes, who is also UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, met today with President Mahinda Rajapakse and reiterated his concerns over the level of civilian casualties, as well as the urgent need to assist the tens of thousands of civilians still trapped in the conflict zone, particularly with food aid and medical supplies.

“Given the fact that the LTTE has refused to let these people go, I hope that we will be given more humanitarian access to the zone,” said Mr. Holmes. “We believe that there are critical levels of hunger, and large numbers of people needing medical treatment.”

The top UN humanitarian official added that he welcomed the Government’s announcement of a scale-down of combat operations and a cessation of heavy weapons fire, because that should reduce civilian casualties.

However, he said that in the light of past experience, the key was implementation in full of what had been announced, and he expressed great concern at initial reports of continued shelling.

He also raised with the Government the issue of the 13 UN staff members currently being prevented from leaving camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs), despite repeated promises they would be released.

According to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), reports indicate that camps and hospitals treating wounded civilians are struggling to cope with the outflow of civilians. More than 100,000 people have escaped from the combat zone over the past week.

Mr. Holmes is allocating a further $10 million dollars from the UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) to assist the relief efforts.

Meanwhile, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has confirmed that some 160,000 people have been displaced by fighting into the Government controlled areas, of which more than 140,000 are being accommodated in 32 sites in Vavuniya, another 11,000 in Jaffna and some 5,000 in Trincomalee.

UNHCR staff on the ground report that the present situation in the north is critical,” the agency’s spokesperson, William Spindler, told reporters in Geneva. “The conditions at the sites have reached breaking point, placing severe strains on the humanitarian services available.”

The agency says that people without shelter are staying out in the open in the blazing sun and sweltering heat. It has also received “persistent” reports of physical assaults on men and women fleeing into Government-controlled areas.

“We are reminding the Government of its responsibilities towards the civilian population and to ensure the protection of its own citizens,” Mr. Spindler stated.

UNHCR is calling on the Government to provide more resources to respond to the emergency and immediately make available all public buildings and viable land for the accommodation of the large number of civilians in desperate need of assistance.

The agency began an aid airlift for displaced people in Sri Lanka yesterday with the first plane carrying almost 3,000 family-size tents from its stockpiles in Dubai. A second humanitarian flight, carrying 103 metric tons of aid, arrived early today in Colombo.

High Commissioner António Guterres has authorised an additional $2 million for Sri Lankan operations, which will go towards providing shelter, protection and other aid for civilians. The agency is also revising its current appeal for Sri Lanka, and increasing its budget for IDPs there to $16.6 million.

“Given the urgency of the situation, we hope that donors will give generously to UNHCR in order for us to continue assisting the thousands of people forced to flee their homes in Sri Lanka,” Mr. Spindler said.


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