Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka: WFP official calls for improved humanitarian access

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COLOMBO, 18 May 2007 (IRIN) - A senior World Food Programme (WFP) official, Tony Banbury, has called for additional resources, improved humanitarian access and greater security for aid workers who are helping 400,000 people displaced in Sri Lanka.

Banbury, WFP's Asia regional director, is concluding a four-day mission to Sri Lanka, during which he met government ministers and donors and visited internally displaced people's (IDP) camps in Batticaloa district.

"We are worried in general about the shrinking of humanitarian space for humanitarian actors and about a lack of respect for humanitarian principals and standards that are international, global and not uniformly respected by all parties here in Sri Lanka.

"I am especially concerned about the impact of the conflict on civilians, many of whom have been displaced multiple times by fighting," he said.

He mentioned, in particular, how such multiple displacements created humanitarian deprivation, including psycho-social problems, lack of food and educational opportunities, and left many IDPs, especially young women, highly vulnerable.

Lack of resources

Banbury said WFP was committed to assisting IDPs living in camps and those people now being resettled to their home communities "as long as those returns are safe and voluntary".

He said that while WFP had sufficient food in the pipeline to meet needs until mid-June, "we need more resources from donors right now; otherwise we will have to cut back assistance to victims of the conflict". He also said WFP could face difficult decisions about choosing one set of beneficiaries over another because of the lack of resources.

According to WFP Country Director Jeff Taft-Dick, it costs US$4.5 million per month to provide food to displaced IDPs countrywide.

The minister for resettlement and disaster relief services had requested that WFP provide food assistance over the next three months to the IDPs returning to Batticaloa West.

Security issues

Banbury voiced his concern about the security climate for the humanitarian community: "The situation for the UN is clearly not an easy one. After the LTTE [Tamil Tigers] carried out an attack in Colombo [which Banbury strongly condemned] there was a response by the Sri Lanka military," he said. "Bombs were being dropped by planes close to the WFP compound in Killinochchi. This is not always a safe and secure environment for aid workers."

He also addressed recent criticisms of the UN and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). "I regret very much that the aid community has been criticised for its activities in Sri Lanka, unjustifiably so in my view, without adequate recognition of the sacrifice the aid community makes."

Banbury said that when the press published stories "where the facts are wrong and statements are made about the motives of the UN that are absolutely 100 percent inaccurate, those types of false accusations can put the lives of selfless aid workers at risk by accusing them of taking sides, accusing them of supporting a terrorist organisation - something that in this environment of high emotions and volatile conflict is irresponsible. I call on all press outlets - national and international - to avoid such unsubstantiated, unfair and irresponsible attacks."

WFP concerns

In meetings with officials, Banbury said he was "worried about the shrinkage of humanitarian space" and raised several concerns with them .

One worry concerned access by humanitarian agencies to vulnerable populations in the north and east of the country "as a result of barriers, formal and informal". Banbury said: "When these delays occur, people in need of assistance, children and pregnant women, are going without food and for us this is simply unacceptable."

A second concern, according to Banbury, is security of national and international WFP staff and those of other agencies after recent reports of threats to aid workers. He cited in particular the tragic incident in early August 2006 when 17 national Action Contre la Faim (ACF) staff were murdered in Muttur town, Trincomalee district.

A third concern was the slow delivery of critically needed food, particularly for the Jaffna area, where WFP food stocks are very low. Banbury said WFP was hoping to ship as soon as possible an additional 1,000 metric tonnes of food to Jaffna, which has been dependent on limited ship transport, as the A9 road to the peninsula is still closed.

The WFP is committed to ensuring increased food resources reach those who need them, "provided this aid can be delivered with full respect for humanitarian principles", Banbury said. "We call upon all parties to respect basic humanitarian principles and allow food and other humanitarian assistance to be delivered unhindered to persons and communities affected by the conflict, especially in the Batticaloa area and the Jaffna peninsula. "

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