UNHCR to step up Sri Lanka operation, including airlift to help displaced

News Stories, 24 April 2009

© Reuters/Sri Lankan Government
On the Run: This photograph released by the Sri Lankan military shows what the army says are thousands of people fleeing an area held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in north-eastern Sri Lanka.

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, April 24 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency was on Friday preparing to ramp up its already sizeable humanitarian operations in Sri Lanka to address the needs of tens of thousands of civilians displaced by fighting between government forces and rebel fighters in the north-east.

Plans include an emergency airlift to Colombo of 5,000 lightweight family tents and other aid items from UNHCR's regional stockpile in Dubai. The flight could take off as early as this weekend. A UNHCR emergency team is also being dispatched, the second to be sent to the country in two months.

The agency is also increasing its budget for Sri Lankan operations that cater to the internally displaced by some 35 percent to US$16.6 million to provide shelter, protection and other aid for civilians fleeing the conflict zone. The additional US$4.3 million will be sought from government and private donors.

The decision follows a dramatic escalation in fighting between government forces and Tamil rebels in recent days as the government attempts to flush out the remaining rebel stronghold in the coastal Mullaitivu district.

According to government reports, more than 100,000 people have left the conflict area since April 20. Some 35,000 had already arrived in camps as of Friday. On Thursday alone, some 11,000 people arrived in the district of Vavuniya, bordering the conflict zone.

The planned UNHCR airlift will transport some 210 tonnes to Sri Lanka for use in some 38 camps in and around the northern towns of Vavuniya, Jaffna and Trincomalee. Overcrowding at the camps is becoming a major worry. In one location, Menik Farm, eight to 10 people are sharing shelters normally designed for four or five. Many IDPs, or internally displaced people, in the camps have no shelter from the sweltering heat.

"We are working with partners to provide emergency shelter support and the distribution of non-food aid while carrying out protection monitoring at the transit and IDP sites," UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic told journalists in Geneva on Friday morning.

The refugee agency is asking the government to allocate more land for the construction of emergency shelter and water and sanitation infrastructure. It has urged the government to make public buildings available for shelter.

Aid workers also cite growing problems of malnourishment, lack of transport to move the sick to hospitals, and a shortage of medical personnel. Some of the displaced have not eaten for days.

UNHCR is spearheading efforts to provide shelter to people displaced by the conflict. It is also coordinating distribution of non-food items and monitoring security of the displaced.

Overcrowding continues to be an overriding concern at all IDP sites, especially in terms of the large numbers in Vavuniya. With tens of thousands expected during the next few days, UNHCR is asking the government to speed up the process of identifying additional sites for new arrivals.

The refugee agency is also calling on the government to provide partners with unhindered access to sites to carry out relief work. Failure to do so could have an impact on services which are already stretched thin at the sites.

UNHCR remains deeply concerned about the estimated 50,000 people who are still trapped inside the conflict zone where fighting is intensifying. "We urge the government to exercise extreme caution in its military actions and calls upon the LTTE to allow displaced people to leave the area immediately," Mahecic said in Geneva.




UNHCR country pages


One of the first things that people need after being forced to flee their homes, whether they be refugees or internally displaced, is some kind of a roof over their head.

Emergency Response

UNHCR is committed to increasing its ability to respond to complex emergency situations.

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Most of the 157,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) from Abyan have found shelter with friends and relatives, but some 20,000 have been staying in dozens of public schools and eight vacant public buildings. Conditions are crowded with several families living together in a single classroom.

Many IDPs expected their displacement would not be for long. They wish to return home, but cannot do so due to the fighting. Moreover, some are fearful of reprisals if they return to areas where many homes were destroyed or severely damaged in bombings.

UNHCR has provided emergency assistance, including blankets, plastic sheeting and wood stoves, to almost 70,000 IDPs from Abyan. Earlier this year, UNHCR rehabilitated two buildings, providing shelter for 2,000 people and allowing 3,000 children, IDPs and locals, to resume schooling in proper classrooms. UNHCR is advocating with the authorities for the conversion of additional public buildings into transitional shelters for the thousands of IDPs still living in schools.

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Shelter for the Displaced in Yemen

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During Sri Lanka's 20-year civil war more than 1 million people were uprooted from their homes or forced to flee, often repeatedly. Many found shelter in UNHCR-supported Open Relief Centers, in government welfare centers or with relatives and friends.

In February 2002, the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) signed a cease-fire accord and began a series of talks aimed at negotiating a lasting peace. By late 2003, more than 300,000 internally displaced persons had returned to their often destroyed towns and villages.

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Sri Lanka: IDPs and Returnees

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The Hill Tamils have been the subject of a number of bilateral agreements in the past giving them the option between Sri Lankan and Indian citizenship. But in 2003, there were still an estimated 300,000 stateless people of Indian origin living in Sri Lanka.

Things improved markedly, in October 2003, after the Sri Lankan parliament passed the "Grant of Citizenship to People of Indian Origin Act," which gave nationality to people who had lived in Sri Lanka since 1964 and to their descendants. UNHCR, the government of Sri Lanka and local organizations ran an information campaign informing Hill Tamils about the law and the procedures for acquiring citizenship. With more than 190,000 of the stateless people in Sri Lanka receiving citizenship over a 10-day period in late 2003, this was heralded as a huge success story in the global effort to reduce statelessness.

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Statelessness in Sri Lanka: Hill Tamils

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