Aid agencies call for unfettered access to IDP camps

Aid workers are calling for unfettered access to more than 40 camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Sri Lanka's north.

"Access is critical right now due to the fragile state of health of the people who have just arrived," Gordon Weiss, UN spokesman, told IRIN on 28 May in Colombo.

“Humanitarian agencies need unimpeded access to wherever the displaced persons are located,” he said.

The UN has repeatedly expressed concern over the welfare of thousands of Tamil civilians inside the camps - now estimated at close to 290,000.

Since October 2008, they have fled heavy fighting between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and are now being accommodated at 44 government camps in four northern districts - Vavuniya, Mannar, Jaffna and Trincomalee.

Of these, more than 269,000 are in Vavuniya alone, most of whom have arrived since April, the UN said.

“Needs are great, especially for medical care, and those needs are not being fully met,” Jakob Kellenberger, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said on 27 May in Geneva at the launch of the ICRC’s annual report

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"It is essential that we obtain access to all IDPs in order to provide medical care, water and other essentials, to verify treatment and conditions and to enable people to restore or maintain contact with their families," he said.

Just last week, ICRC suspended its relief efforts between 19 and 20 May following problems of access to Menic Farm, the largest IDP centre, where more than 140,000 are now staying.

The UN is particularly concerned about the sprawling 570ha site outside Vavuniya, where authorities are struggling to provide community services and infrastructure for health education, water and sanitation.

Aid workers on the ground say minimum humanitarian standards are not being met.

Although some officials say Tamils are being kept in the camps for their own safety, the more common belief is the government’s desire to weed out any possible LTTE fighters and sympathisers. Earlier this week, the government said it was holding 9,100 suspected former Tamil Tiger rebel fighters, most of whom were being sent for "rehabilitation and vocational training", according to AFP.

"We have sent 7,500 of those who surrendered for rehabilitation and vocational training, while the balance, 1,600, are still being questioned for their involvement in terrorist activities," Media Minister Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena told reporters.

Photo: Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry
"There is a wide gap between what is needed and what is available," UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on his visit to Menik Farm on 23 May

Access issues

Almost two weeks after the government declared victory over the LTTE, ending more than two decades of civil war, questions about access remain.

On 25 May, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that access to Menic Farm remained restricted. Two days earlier, however, Sri Lankan authorities reportedly put in place procedures for UN and I/NGO national staff entering the site.

Temporary ID cards would be issued for national staff, which they would leave at the gate and pick up at the end of the day, while international staff could enter the camp by showing their official IDs, OCHA said.

Elsewhere, however, local aid workers say relief work had largely continued over the weekend.

“I saw accredited service providers going about their tasks unhindered on Sunday [24 May]. Vital service providers are on the job,” Jeevan Thiyagaraja, executive director of the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA), an umbrella body of local and international relief agencies, told IRIN.

Meanwhile, others working in Vavuniya say the authorities and relief agencies needed to reach a compromise to continue assisting the IDPs properly.

“We acknowledge the concerns of the government with regard to national security and appreciate the cooperation that we receive from the government and the military in delivering aid," Menaca Calyaneratne, head of media and communications for Save the Children, Sri Lanka, told IRIN.

She added, however, that the humanitarian imperative was paramount in all their work and it needed to be stressed that ensuring the dignity of the affected persons was equally important. “I believe that all humanitarian workers know the code of conduct and will act accordingly,” she said.