More than 40,000 civilians flee latest fighting in eastern Sri Lanka
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, March 13 (UNHCR) - More than 40,000 civilians have fled fierce fighting in eastern Sri Lanka over the past week, pushing to an estimated 127,000 the number of displaced within the affected district of Batticaloa.
The recent movement is taking place from areas held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in western Batticaloa, mainly to the government-controlled areas of Kalawanchikudy and Aarayampathy in the southern part of the district.
As an initial response, UNHCR has transported 2,500 plastic sheets and 1,925 lightweight family tents to be distributed among the affected population. The refugee agency is coordinating with other agencies on the ground to carry out further relief operations.
The government, through local officials, has made an urgent appeal for immediate food assistance for at least the next four weeks. With existing displacement sites overcrowded and continued difficulties in allocating land, UNHCR said it was concerned about the welfare of the displaced in the district.
As fighting continues, more people may be forced to flee, and UNHCR has asked the government to step up efforts to meet the needs of the displaced. "The new wave has created further pressure on an already difficult situation and it will require more resources and capacity from all actors," said Amin Awad, UNHCR's representative in Sri Lanka.
Awad urged all sides involved in the conflict to ensure the protection of civilians. "It's essential that all parties comply with their obligations under international human rights and humanitarian law."
At the same time, UNHCR and other agencies are monitoring the return of civilians from six divisions in Batticaloa to the Trincomalee district. The returns began on Monday. More than 300 people have been transported to a transit centre in Killaveddi.
The government of Sri Lanka has said that all return movements will be voluntary. However, inter-agency monitoring reports from Batticaloa indicate that heavy pressure has been applied on internally displaced people (IDPs), including local authority statements that aid will be stopped if they stay in Batticaloa.
This pressure, coupled with security concerns in the sites for IDPs, has forced many displaced people to return to Trincomalee even though they have expressed serious reservations about the security situation in their areas of origin.
"UNHCR is continuing to advocate for voluntary return, without undue pressure or duress. We have offered to accompany the process. UNHCR insists on removing the obstacles for return and we want to help prepare for conducive conditions for any return," UNHCR spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis told reporters in Geneva on Tuesday.
She added that the refugee agency was also concerned about the welfare of an estimated 10,000 internally displaced people in the grounds of Madu church and surrounding areas in LTTE-controlled Mannar, in the northern part of Sri Lanka.
The security situation in this area has deteriorated significantly in the last weeks and the LTTE has now issued instructions that all IDPs should be moved from the church grounds and has restricted access by humanitarian agencies to the site. Many of the IDPs there sought refuge in the church grounds for security reasons and in order to avoid forced recruitment by the LTTE.
UNHCR estimates some 465,000 people are displaced by the conflict in Sri Lanka, including 223,000 people who have fled their homes since the violence flared in April last year after a long ceasefire. Last December, more than 20,000 civilians fled the coastal strip of Vaharai and sought refuge in government-controlled areas of Batticaloa district.