Sri Lanka: UNHCR struggling to provide for tens of thousands of newly displaced

Briefing Notes, 18 May 2009

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Ron Redmond to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 18 May 2009, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

It is now estimated that 65,000 people have left the former fighting zone in north-east Sri Lanka, which brings the total who have fled the fighting in the last several months to 265,000.

This latest massive influx of people, who have endured extreme conditions, will put an even greater strain on the transit and IDP sites that are already buckling under the pressure of the existing IDP population.

UNHCR plans to put up an additional 10,000 emergency shelters to accommodate the tens of thousands who have left the combat zone and who are expected to arrive seeking shelter in coming days.

For the time being, our existing shelter and relief items are sufficient to respond to the IDPs immediate needs but stocks are running low and will need to replenish them soon.

We are reiterating our request to the government to allocate more land for the construction of emergency shelter, water and sanitation facilities, as well as to provide public buildings in Vavuniya, Jaffna, Mannar and Kilinochchi in order to accommodate arriving IDPs.

UNHCR is calling on the government to take immediate steps to improve conditions at the 42 existing sites hosting the IDPs and ensure adequate care and maintenance for the population of concern.

Our access to the Vavuniya sites has been greatly curtailed over the past few days and this affects our ability to monitor and distribute aid to the displaced. We hope this ends quickly.

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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.

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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.

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