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.

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UNHCR country pages

Shelter

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.

Shelter for the Displaced in Yemen

The port city of Aden in southern Yemen has long been a destination for refugees, asylum-seekers and economic migrants after making the dangerous sea crossing from the Horn of Africa. Since May 2011, Aden also has been providing shelter to tens of thousands of Yemenis fleeing fighting between government forces and armed groups in neighbouring Abyan governorate.

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.

Photographer Pepe Rubio Larrauri travelled to Aden in March 2012 to document the day-to-day lives of the displaced.

Shelter for the Displaced in Yemen

Tsunami Aftermath in Sri Lanka

Shortly after the tsunami hit Sri Lanka, killing over 30,000 people and displacing nearly 800,000, UNHCR was asked to take a lead role in providing transitional shelter – bridging the gap between emergency tents and the construction of permanent homes. The refugee agency is not normally involved in natural disasters, but lent its support to the effort because of the scale of the devastation and because many of the tsunami-affected people were also displaced by the conflict.

Since the 26 December 2004 tsunami, UNHCR has helped in the coordination and construction of over 55,000 transitional shelters and has directly constructed, through its partners, 4,500 shelters in Jaffna in the north, and Ampara District in the east. These efforts are helping some 20,000 people rebuild their lives.

On 15 November, 2005, UNHCR completed its post-tsunami shelter role and formally handed over responsibility for the shelter sector to the Sri Lankan government. Now, UNHCR is returning its full focus to its pre-tsunami work of providing assistance to people internally displaced by the conflict, and refugees repatriating from India.

Tsunami Aftermath in Sri Lanka

Picking Up the Pieces in Sri Lanka

In an unprecedented response to a natural disaster, the U.N. refugee agency – whose mandate is to protect refugees fleeing violence and persecution – has kicked off a six-month, multi-million dollar emergency relief operation to aid tsunami victims in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Somalia. UNHCR has worked in Sri Lanka for nearly 20 years and has the largest operational presence in the country with seven offices, 113 staff and a strong network of partnerships in place. The day of the tsunami, UNHCR opened up its warehouses in the island nation and began distributing existing stockpiles – including plastic sheeting, cooking sets and clothing for 100,000 people.

UNHCR estimates that some 889,000 people are now displaced in Sri Lanka, including many who were already displaced by the long-running conflict in the north. Prior to the tsunami, UNHCR assisted 390,000 people uprooted by the war. UNHCR is now expanding its logistical and warehouse capacity throughout the island to facilitate delivery of relief items to the needy populations, including in the war-affected area. The refugee agency is currently distributing relief items and funding mobile health clinics to assist the injured and sick.

Picking Up the Pieces in Sri Lanka

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