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.