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UNHCR stepping up Sri Lankan operations to meet growing needs

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UNHCR stepping up Sri Lankan operations to meet growing needs

24 April 2009

Friday, 24 April 2009

GENEVA - The UN refugee agency is preparing to ramp up its already sizeable humanitarian operations in Sri Lanka to address the needs of tens of thousands of people displaced by the recent fighting in the north-east of the country.

Plans include an emergency airlift of 5,000 family tents and other aid items from UNHCR's regional stockpile in Dubai to the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo. The airlift could begin 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 $16.6 million, to provide shelter, protection and other aid for civilians fleeing the conflict zone. The additional funds 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.

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 of lightweight tents from Dubai to the island for use in some 38 camps in and around the towns of Vavuniya, Jaffna and Trincomalee.

Overcrowding at the camps is becoming a major worry. In one location, Menik Farm, eight to ten 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.

The 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.

UNHCR has worked in Sri Lanka since 1987 and has seven offices and more than 120 staff in the island nation.