Emergency response stepped up in Sri Lanka, new displacement at 63,000
UNHCR has stepped up its emergency response in Sri Lanka's north, where displacement numbers are growing as a result of heavy fighting between the military and the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE). So far, more than 63,000 people have fled the conflict zone in the north-eastern coastal pocket and are being accommodated at several transit and internal displacement sites in the districts of Vavuniya, Jaffna and Mannar.
UNHCR - together with the government and other partners - is responding with massive shelter support and regular distribution of non-food aid items while undertaking protection monitoring. The distributions are concentrated on Vavuniya thus far, where a majority of the internally displaced people (IDPs ) are being accommodated. UNHCR has so far distributed some 36,000 plastic mats, over 22,000 bed sheets, 32,000 mosquito nets, more than 46,000 men's and women's clothing, 9,000 kitchen sets and thousands of hygiene kits.
The construction of emergency shelter units by UNHCR's shelter partners at government-designated sites is also progressing as planned. Despite formidable challenges due to adverse physical conditions at the sites, work on one site in Vavuniya which has a total capacity of up to 27,000 persons, is scheduled to be completed by Monday (20 April). We have asked the government to provide more land, including in the district of Mannar to help alleviate overcrowding at the current sites and to relieve pressure on services in Vavuniya.
UNHCR welcomes positive steps by the government to address several protection concerns at the sites in Vavuniya. Short visits by friends and relatives to the sites are now allowed. UNHCR monitored the first round of visits on Monday (13 April). Telephone, telegram and mail services are now operating in almost all sites in the district. Meanwhile, approximately 1,800 IDPs with special needs, particularly the elderly, have been released from the sites, and some 1,345 separated families have so far been reunited, according to the government.
While commending these initiatives, UNHCR calls upon the government to accelerate progress on other outstanding protection concerns, including maintaining the civilian character of the IDP sites and the separation of ex-combatants from the civilian population; expediting the screening process in IDP camps; and subsequently allowing freedom of movement. UNHCR has made a number of concrete suggestions on how best to proceed and will continue to work closely with the government to ensure that minimum international standards are met at all sites.
UNHCR believes the ultimate objective of the government should be to facilitate the safe and voluntary return of the displaced to their villages of origin by removing obstacles to return. Chief among them is the challenging task of de-mining. We urge the international community to provide the government with technical and financial support to carry out mine clearance in areas of return. While responding to the emergency, UNHCR is encouraging the government to draw from lessons learned during the IDP return process in the east as it puts together a return plan for the north. We stand ready to support this.
We remain deeply concerned about the plight of the civilian population still trapped inside the conflict zone. Those fleeing into government controlled areas provide similar accounts of the dire humanitarian conditions prevalent inside the area. The situation has worsened due the ongoing heavy rains and winds, with most families living in flooded areas under damaged tarpaulin tents and beneath trees.
UNHCR calls on the LTTE to immediately allow these people to move to areas where they feel safe. We also urge both parties to the conflict to adhere to International Humanitarian Law and ensure that the safety of the innocent civilian population is the top priority.