"Too many people" at huge IDP camp - UN

Conditions at a huge government-run camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Sri Lanka are still unsatisfactory, the UN’s top official in the country told IRIN, despite some improvements.

“The fundamental issue is that there are too many people in too small a place,” said Neil Buhne, the UN resident coordinator in Sri Lanka, adding: “We think it is the largest IDP camp in the world.”

In the past two months over 210,000 people have flocked to the camp, leaving aid agencies struggling to cope, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

The camp, known as Menik Farm, covers over 500 hectares outside the town of Vavuniya in northern Sri Lanka, about 270km from Colombo. It has over 220,000 IDPs who fled fighting between government forces and the now defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

As of 5 June, the UN Refugee Agency and its partners had erected some 6,500 emergency shelters and more than 13,000 tents - but much more is needed, OCHA said.

Buhne, who recently visited the camp, reports seeing 10-15 people in tents designed for five, but insisted improvements would happen.

Photo: Contributor/IRIN
Despite recent improvements, conditions at the camp are not satisfactory, Buhne says

Sanitation “woefully inadequate”

Improvements to water and sanitation facilities at the camp have been carried out, but in some places 100 people are using a single latrine when the standard should be around 20, Buhne said, adding that some pit latrines which were built when the camp was first opened in November 2008 were overflowing, causing discontent.

“The situation is that people are coping, but very obviously this [the facilities] are not adequate,” Buhne said.

“The biggest gap continues to be in the provision of adequate water and sanitation,” Richard Schmidt, head of office of Solidar in Vavuniya, said at their mid-year review.

“Already there are outbreaks in the camps such as chicken pox, hepatitis and diarrhoea, which will only get worse if water and sanitation does not improve,” he warned.

World Vision said water and sanitation was a major issue at many of the more than 40 camps set up by the government.

“The sanitation facilities in the largest camps where most of the displaced are living are woefully inadequate and at least 11,500 more latrines are needed in the camps to comply with international minimum standards,” it said in an 11 June statement.

At least 2,500 latrines were needed immediately to prevent a potential health crisis, ahead of the rains expected in two weeks time, it added.

Photo: World Vision Lanka
The bulk of food is cooked at large communal kitchens such as this one


The World Food Programme (WFP) said sufficient food was reaching residents in all camps, but that it needed US$5 million per month to ensure a steady supply of basic food. It was urgently seeking funds to avoid supply breakdowns.

"We urgently need $35 million to meet the needs for this year. We need the funds fast, because it takes 3-6 months for us to ship food into the country,” Adnan Khan, the WFP country head, told IRIN.

Complimentary food for infants and lactating mothers in the camps was still an issue.


Some groups are pressing for greater access to the sprawling site, citing restrictions on vehicles entering the site.

Earlier this month, Sri Lankan Minister of Human Rights and Disaster Management Mahinda Samarasinghe told a press conference the government was prepared to grant appropriate access where needed, but not unfettered access.

Buhne said access restrictions had improved over the past three weeks and had not affected the supply of food, medicine or construction materials, but had prevented advocacy and protection programmes from taking place, adding: “One of the big issues is garbage [disposal]. We have had some problems with some softer issues like that,” he said.