UNHCR ups response in Sri Lanka, including second airlift

News Stories, 28 April 2009

© UNHCR/Z.Sinclair
Displaced Sri Lankan civilians at a special site near the town of Vavuniya at the weekend.

GENEVA, April 28 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency continued its robust response to the emergency situation in Sri Lanka on Tuesday as tens of thousands of people continued to flee the conflict zone in the north-east.

"So far, we have 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," a UNHCR spokesman, William Spindler, told journalists in Geneva, referring to three districts in the north.

On Monday, UNHCR began an aid airlift for the displaced people, with the first cargo plane carrying almost 3,000 family-size tents from stockpiles in Dubai. A second humanitarian flight, a Boeing 777 carrying 103 tonnes of aid, arrived early today in Colombo.

"So far, we have airlifted some 5,000 family tents and a large consignment of relief items. All these relief items will be transported for immediate distribution in the north, where UNHCR has already distributed tens of thousands of relief items," Spindler said.

UNHCR is also sending out more staff into the field to carry out protection monitoring at the sites hosting displaced people. The agency and its partners were on Tuesday putting up lightweight tents to increase the shelter capacity of these sites.

Staff on the ground report that the present situation in the north is critical. The conditions at the sites have reached breaking point, placing severe strains on the humanitarian services available. People without shelter are staying out in the open in the blazing sun and sweltering heat.

"We have received persistent reports of physical assaults on men and women fleeing into government-controlled areas," Spindler said, while adding: "We are reminding the government of its responsibilities towards the civilian population and to ensure the protection of its own citizens. We urge that all necessary steps be taken to investigate these incidents and to bring those responsible to justice."

Staff on site also reports overcrowding, malnourishment, dehydration and limited medical facilities at the current sites. There is also a lack of food aid and delayed distribution. This, coupled with limited water and sanitation facilities at the sites, is compounding existing health problems.

UNHCR is calling on the Sri Lankan 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.

"We are also calling on the government to make immediate arrangements to separate ex-combatants from the civilian population and keep them in separate facilities where they can undergo rehabilitation in line with international standards," Spindler said.

Although large numbers of civilians are escaping the conflict zone, hundreds of fighters of the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and tens of thousands of civilians are believed to be stuck in the narrow coastal strip of Mullaitivu.

High Commissioner António Guterres has authorized the expenditure of an additional US$2 million for Sri Lankan operations. The additional funds will provide shelter, protection and other aid for civilians fleeing the conflict zone in the north. UNHCR is revising its current appeal for Sri Lanka, and increasing the budget for Sri Lankan internally displaced people to US$16.6 million.




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Emergency Response

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


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.

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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