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.