Sri Lanka

UN concern about Sri Lanka's twin humanitarian crises

COLOMBO, 28 April 2009: The UN's top humanitarian official said today that Sri Lanka faces huge challenges in meeting an unfolding humanitarian crisis.

Speaking after touring camps for people who fled fighting in the island nation's north, UN Under- Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes said that Sri Lanka is trying to cope with "what amounts to two quite distinct crises."

"There are still tens of thousands of people trapped on a small patch of territory in the north, with the LTTE refusing to let them leave, and with fighting continuing," said Holmes. "The second crisis is the swollen camps that are filling up with 200,000 people who fled the fighting, many in very poor condition, with more likely on the way soon."

In a meeting earlier today with President Rajapakse, Holmes reiterated concerns over the level of civilian casualties, and the urgent need to assist the tens of thousands of civilians still trapped in the conflict zone, particularly with food aid and medical supplies.

"Given the fact that the LTTE has refused to let these people go, I hope that we will be given more humanitarian access to the zone," said Holmes. "We believe that there are critical levels of hunger, and large numbers of people needing medical treatment."

Mr. Holmes added that he welcomed the government's announcement about the scaling down of combat operations and no further use of heavy weapons, because that should reduce civilian casualties. However he said that the key was implementation in full of what had been announced, in the light of past experience. In this context he expressed great concern at initial reports of continued shelling.

Reports emerging from the camps and hospitals treating wounded civilians in the past few days have painted a picture of systems struggling to cope with the outflow of civilians. More than 100,000 people have escaped from the combat zone over the past week.

"The large numbers arriving at Omantai checkpoint in such a short space of time stretched the government's capacity to cope, and our capacity to help," said Holmes. "But we are now making progress with basic services such as shelter, water and food. Nevertheless it is a long way to go before we can achieve anything like satisfactory conditions. I hope donors will respond generously and I am allocating a further ten million dollars from the UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF)."

With overcrowding a problem in the existing transit centres and camps for the displaced, Holmes urged that civilians who have been screened be given the chance to leave the camps and to rely on friends and family elsewhere.

Holmes also raised with the Government the issue of the 13 UN staff members currently being prevented from leaving IDP camps, despite repeated promises they will be released.

Ends/.

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UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
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