Growing concern over nutrition of displaced children

Concerns are growing that the number of malnourished children is higher than earlier estimated among thousands of recently displaced in Sri Lanka.

Some 300,000 internally displaced persons (IDP), many of them children, live in more than 40 government camps in the north, after fleeing fighting between government forces and the defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

It is estimated that 13 percent of the IDP population is younger than five, with one in four or some 10,000 children suffering from acute malnutrition, humanitarian sources told IRIN.

According to a survey by the Colombo-based Medical Research Institute in March in six out of the then 13 camps, 25.5 percent of children suffered from global acute malnutrition, of whom 5.2 percent were severely malnourished and needed immediate rehabilitation with therapeutic food and treatment.

However, since that survey was conducted, the number of camps and IDPs has ballooned, leaving many believing the numbers are significantly higher now.

“We are obviously concerned about this, but as we don’t have access to the camps, we’re clueless as to the true extent of the problem,” an international aid worker in Colombo said.

Since 20 April, at least 210,000 people have fled to government-controlled areas and into the camps, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Sri Lanka reported.

Those who arrived most recently from the conflict zone suffered the most, enduring acute shortages of food and water for extended periods.

“The most vulnerable and most needy - including the injured, sick, elderly and small children – are often the ones that miss out since they don’t have the ability to wait in queues for up to 10 hours,” David White, deputy country director for Oxfam GB, told IRIN in Colombo.

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is constructing 21 nutrition centres across the camps and supplied more than 250 metric tonnes of food for malnourished children.

UNICEF, however, said access difficulties were preventing it from meeting all needs.

“The nutritional situation of children is a huge concern for UNICEF, and restrictions on access at this most critical of moments diminish our ability to help malnourished children," James Elder, UNICEF’s spokesman in Sri Lanka, told IRIN, adding that any restrictions on access to camps had damaging consequences for children given the enormous amount that needs to be done in terms of sanitation, health, nutrition, protection and education.

Photo: Contributor/IRIN
A young girl at the Cheddikulum primary school, one of more than 40 camps set up by the government to accommodate the 300,000 ethnic Tamils who fled the conflict

Access restrictions

Since 18 May, access to Menik Farm, the largest IDP centre with more than 220,000 people, remains restricted, OCHA reported.

The restrictions were placed on the number of vehicles entering the site, particularly those carrying personnel. Some UN staffers report being prevented from moving freely inside camps, citing security requirements that the vehicle remain within 15m of personnel.

However, according to the World Food Programme (WFP), which has been transporting food supplies into the camps, the restrictions have not hampered its activities.

“Food supplies have never been affected by access restrictions,” Adnan Khan, WFP country director, told IRIN, conceding, however, that some staff were unable to accompany vehicles given restrictions on vehicles entering the camps.

“The restriction on movement of vehicles inside the camps affected our ability to do some of our monitoring work. We as an agency have to monitor our food distributions since we must be accountable to our governing bodies,” Khan said. Access in recent days had been easing and that staff were now able to move more freely within the camps.

“We continue to work with the government on this issue and hope that there will be more improvement in access in the coming days,” the UN official said.