Tens of thousands of children among IDPs

More than half the 170,000 civilians who have fled fighting in Sri Lanka’s north to government-controlled areas could be children needing care, relief officials warn.

Some 100,000 people have fled the fighting since 20 April, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), swelling the numbers in camps to 169,280 as of 29 April.

The UN Children’s Agency (UNICEF) has appealed for US$5 million to help meet the increased needs of those affected and Save the Children UK is appealing for about $3 million.

“Tens of thousands of children, who for months have endured extreme conditions – including fierce fighting, shortages of food, water and medicines - now urgently need immediate support,” James Elder, UNICEF spokesman in Sri Lanka, told IRIN. “More than one in four children [under five years] in the camps is malnourished; others have dysentery, others were separated from their families and urgently need to be reunited; many more need to be back in school,” he said.

“UNICEF’s priority areas are nutrition, water, sanitation, health, protection and education. UNICEF’s emergency support for children and their families has so far included more than 180MT of nutritional support to malnourished children and their mothers, tens of thousands of hygiene kits, an enormous supply of safe water, and hundreds of water tanks and latrines,” Elder explained.

Other relief agencies, such as Save the Children UK have also increased their assistance to meet the latest influx. 

The agency has already reached 37,000 children with food and family kits, Jasmine Whitbread, Save the Children UK’s chief executive, told IRIN.

Photo: IRIN contributor
More than one in four children now in transits sites are malnourished, according to UNICEF

Separated children

The latest exodus was triggered when government forces on 20 April entered the so-called “no-fire” zone, a narrow sliver of land in the northeast where the last remnants of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) troops, who have been fighting for an independent Tamil homeland for more than two decades, were holed up, alongside thousands of Tamil civilians.

"The last influx was so large and so fast that we fear many hundreds of children have lost their parents along the way. The escape from the 'no fire' zone was so panicked that even a breastfeeding mother was separated from her newborn,” Stein Lied, a Save the Children protection adviser in northern Sri Lanka, said.

“Many of these children would have never known peace. They would be quite traumatised by this experience,” Whitbread said.

Save the Children is also planning to set up child-friendly spaces in the various camps set up for the displaced by the government, with drawing and writing material.

“We know from our experience around the world these measures help get a sense of normalcy,” she said.