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Tsunami response: UNHCR planning a multi-million dollar relief operation as part of overall UN effort

Briefing notes

Tsunami response: UNHCR planning a multi-million dollar relief operation as part of overall UN effort

4 January 2005

As part of the overall UN effort, UNHCR is mounting a major response in Sri Lanka - where we have worked for nearly two decades - and in Indonesia's battered Aceh province. We've already planned for an initial six-month operation. It is unprecedented for UNHCR to take such a large and active role in natural disaster response - our mandate is for refugees fleeing persecution and violence. But the enormity of this crisis demands that all of us contribute resources and expertise, so the High Commissioner has taken this exceptional decision to do everything we can as part of the UN response.

The day after the tsunami, UNHCR opened its warehouses in Sri Lanka and began distributing everything we had in our stockpiles - plastic sheeting, cooking sets and clothing for 100,000 people. With seven offices and 113 staff in Sri Lanka, we're the largest operational UN agency on the island so we've already got a pretty good network in place. We've long had a presence in the conflict-affected north as well and have been doing distributions there too. Before the tsunami, we cared for 390,000 internally displaced people and returned refugees in Sri Lanka. Now we estimate there are some 800,000 who are displaced. We are rapidly moving to replenish our stockpiles and to bolster our distribution network. We're planning to fly in additional supplies from our global stockpiles in Copenhagen and elsewhere. This will include five huge portable warehouses.

For Indonesia, we began a massive 400-tonne airlift from our stockpiles in Denmark and Dubai on Sunday. The first of those items have begun arriving in Jakarta and are being transferred to other aircraft for transfer to northern Sumatra. We've got an advance team on the ground in Indonesia's Aceh province and in Medan, on the eastern side of the island. Most of our supplies will be flown to Medan, then driven across the island to affected areas in the west. A giant Antonov 124 jet freighter arrived in Jakarta today with 2,025 bales of blankets and seven crates of UNHCR telecommunications equipment - about 100 tonnes all told. Another flight is due to arrive later today, bringing 2,000 ten-person tents from Dubai.

Over the past 24 hours, seven international staff flew into Jakarta to join a UNHCR team that has already established a presence in Aceh's provincial capital of Banda Aceh, where they are collaborating with other agencies on the distribution of relief supplies and emergency services. The latest arrivals included UNHCR experts in public health, water and sanitation, shelter and communications. We're also bringing UNHCR staff, vehicles and other equipment from elsewhere in the Indonesian archipelago, including West Timor.

Tomorrow, an inter-agency mission organised by UNHCR and WFP [World Food Programme] is to begin a two-day helicopter survey of areas along the devastated west coast of Sumatra, where the soft earth had previously prevented choppers from landing in many places.

We face huge logistical challenges in Aceh, where we are starting operations from scratch. UNHCR will focus on providing shelter, particularly in the remote and inaccessible regions in the west. We're looking at the possibility of using both helicopters and barges to do this. First priority is to get emergency shelter materials and other non-food basics to those living in the open. Next we'll get them shelter kits so they can begin rebuilding and repairing their homes.

Overall, UNHCR is planning a multi-million dollar relief operation for tsunami victims in the Indonesian province of Aceh and in Sri Lanka. We will focus on shelter, non-food relief, and logistics and distribution. Details of both operations and the specific resources needed are expected to be released later in the week as part of the joint U.N. appeal. But initial UNHCR estimates place the cost of the refugee agency's operation for both countries well over US$55 million for six months.

UNHCR's Assistant High Commissioner, Mr. Kamel Morjane, is scheduled to depart tonight for Jakarta, where he will inspect the agency's operations. Morjane, who is the senior official in charge of global operations, is also expected to travel to Sri Lanka.