Switzerland offers UNHCR helicopters for relief operation
GENEVA, 7 Jan. (UNHCR) - In a humanitarian gesture on Friday, the Swiss government offered the U.N. refugee agency three Super Puma military helicopters for a period of three months to help deliver relief and shelter materials in the tsunami-devastated Indonesian province of Aceh. The helicopters will be available early next week, significantly boosting UNHCR's logistical capacity to operate in remote areas of the western Aceh coast. The Swiss will pay the operating costs for the three-month period.
"Logistics are a major constraint in this emergency relief operation, and these helicopters will be essential in really helping us move materials and staff into the remote parts of Aceh's west coast where assistance is desperately needed," said UNHCR's Asia Pacific Bureau director, Janet Lim, who is overseeing the operation.
The U.N. refugee agency requested Swiss assistance on Thursday.
"This is a very generous offer from a country with a strong humanitarian tradition which is now working alongside the neutral, humanitarian U.N. refugee agency to meet the immediate shelter needs of a traumatised population caught up in this disaster," Lim added.
In the field in Indonesia, Assistant High Commissioner Kamel Morjane, who is in charge of UNHCR's global field operations, visited the area of Banda Aceh destroyed by the Dec. 26 tsunami, and was horrified by what he saw.
"He said every destroyed house is testimony to a shattered life, and our task now to help them rebuild their lives," UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond told reporters in Geneva.
Morjane met with UNHCR's seven-person international emergency team to discuss the immediate tasks for the coming days and weeks. The team is scheduled to reach 16 international staff over the weekend.
On Friday. the emergency team visited hospitals and the spontaneous settlements that have sprung up around the town to start assessing shelter and health conditions. A UNHCR community services officer is also visiting displaced people in many of the spontaneous tented settlements.
On Thursday, the UNHCR team leader joined an assessment mission by helicopter to the island of Simeulue off the western coast of Aceh. The mission - which included the deputy governor and the health minister of Aceh province - was told by local authorities that relatively few islanders had been killed or injured because they fled to higher ground as soon as they felt the earthquake that triggered the tsunami.
Elsewhere in UNHCR's unprecedented response to a natural disaster, the agency plans to airlift relief supplies into Sri Lanka over the weekend to begin replenishing all of the stocks the agency distributed in a round-the-clock operation that began on the day the tsunami struck.
"Before the tsunami, UNHCR was caring for 390,000 conflict-displaced and returning refugees in Sri Lanka, so we already had pretty sizeable stockpiles on the ground," Redmond said. "Now, with an additional half a million displaced by the tsunami, those stockpiles are pretty much depleted and we're scrambling to get more in and to strengthen our existing distribution network."
On Saturday evening (8 January), a charter flight from Frankfurt carrying five portable warehouses and 10,000 plastic sheets from UNHCR's central warehouse in Copenhagen is scheduled to land in Colombo. A further 20,000 cooking sets are expected to be brought in next week from New Delhi.
Hours after the tsunami struck on 26 December, UNHCR started distributing relief supplies for 20,000 families (100,000 people), including plastic sheeting, cooking sets, rope and clothing from one of the few existing stockpiles of relief supplies in Sri Lanka.
In addition to Indonesia and Sri Lanka, UNHCR is assisting tsunami survivors in Somalia in the Horn of Africa. Although the agency' s mandate is to protect and assist refugees fleeing persecution and war, UNHCR has stepped in at the request of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to help victims of the natural disaster, using 50 years of expertise in responding to refugee emergencies.
"While the world's attention has understandably been riveted on the Indian Ocean disaster, UNHCR is also reminding donors of the enormous needs still faced by millions of refugees and others of concern around the world," Redmond said.
On a related issue, UNHCR is urging governments to suspend, for three months, forced returns of rejected asylum seekers and others to areas devastated by the tsunami: Sri Lanka, Indonesia's Aceh province, the Maldives, and coastal areas of India.
UNHCR also reiterates that no one should be forced to return to coastal areas of Somalia, underlining its longstanding position that no Somali should be forced to return to southern Somalia or to any place other than his area of origin. In addition, UNHCR has urged states to be cautious about forcing Somalis to return to north-west and north-east Somalia (Somaliland and Puntland) because of those poor regions' limited ability to absorb returnees.