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Sri Lanka: humanitarian access needed

Briefing notes

Sri Lanka: humanitarian access needed

18 August 2006

We and our partners are now seriously concerned about the welfare of civilians in areas inaccessible to humanitarian agencies because of strictly enforced travel restrictions, as fighting continues in the north and east of Sri Lanka.

UNHCR calls on the Sri Lankan government and the rebel Tamil Tigers, or Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), urgently to allow access for humanitarian aid workers so vital supplies can reach those in need, and to permit freedom of movement to all affected populations.

With the closure of the A9 access road to the Jaffna peninsula through LTTE-controlled Kilinochchi District, supplies of food and water have fallen to alarmingly low levels in many locations. As a result, people are hoarding food, and merchants are sharply hiking prices in local markets.

The situation in Point Pedro, in the north of the Jaffna peninsula, is even more fluid and unpredictable than in Jaffna town. Whereas people in the town have sought refuge in large communal buildings, in Point Pedro displaced civilians are staying in vacant homes and with host families. UNHCR and its partners fear they may not have adequate electricity, water and sanitation.

Eastern districts face a similar crisis. Thousands of displaced families in Muttur, Eachchilampattai Divisions of Trincomalee District, and Vaharai Division in Batticaloa District, are in desperate need of sustained humanitarian relief.

Some 15,000 to 20,000 people are now said to be displaced in LTTE-controlled Kilinochchi District as a result of repeated artillery shelling and air strikes. Humanitarian agencies are targeting their help to those displaced people - some 9,500 individuals - living outdoors or in communal buildings. Closely coordinating our response with other groups, UNHCR has distributed emergency relief items - kitchen utensils, pots and pans, towels, bed sheets, jerry cans, tarpaulins, mats, laundry soap and personal soap - to about 1,500 families, giving priority to the most vulnerable people. Unfortunately, we have limited stock and are not sure when new stock will arrive because of restrictions on road transport.

Around 500 families have reportedly moved to the grounds of Madhu Church in Mannar District, a previous displacement site during the 1983-2002 civil war. All permanent houses around the church are now fully occupied by displaced people, and nearly 75 families have erected tents in the surrounding area. We expect even more families to arrive in the coming days and will be working with our partners to address their immediate needs.

On a more positive note, we are pleased to report that we have gained limited access to Vaharai - an area of Batticaloa receiving many thousands of displaced people from neighbouring Trincomalee District. UNHCR and other agencies visited Vaharai on Thursday, 17 Aug., to assess needs so that we can ensure the effective distribution of relief to affected communities. We also assessed the distribution of relief items already delivered by convoy to the area last weekend.

Since fighting began to flare up in Sri Lanka in April, we have recorded more than 162,200 people who have fled their homes but remain within the country, as well as 6,672 who have crossed the Palk Strait to become refugees in India's Tamil Nadu state.