Sri Lanka

UNICEF Sri Lanka reaches out to children and families displaced by escalating conflict

Blue Chevigny

NEW YORK, USA, 16 May 2007 - UNICEF is playing an increasing role in addressing the psychosocial needs of children affected by ongoing violence in Sri Lanka.

In northern and eastern Sri Lanka, the escalating conflict between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers, is having grave humanitarian consequences. The fighting has impeded access for UNICEF and other aid organizations working in the region.

A total of 3 million people are affected by the conflict, including over 500,000 who have fled their homes. More than half that number have been displaced for over a year.

UNICEF's Chief of Field Coordination in Sri Lanka, Natascha Paddison, oversees seven field offices, six of which are deep in the conflict-affected areas. She reports 4,000 civilian and military deaths in the last 18 months.

Displaced by disaster and conflict

In a telephone interview, Ms. Paddison said UNICEF has been working actively to reach displaced people. Field workers are at the ready, prepared in part by the experience they gained coping with the tsunami of December 2004, which displaced thousands of Sri Lankans from coastal communities.

"We mustn't forget," remarked Ms. Paddison, "some of these [families] were first displaced by the tsunami and then managed to go back to their homes - had hopes as homes and schools and health centres were being rebuilt again. And then as the conflict escalated, they had to flee again."

Despite UNICEF's best efforts, the impact of the violence on children and families is enormous, with malnutrition rates rising, a lack of access to education and adequate water and sanitation facilities, and recruitment of child soldiers into rebel factions. The psychological effects cannot be underestimated, Ms. Paddison noted.

"I remember a couple of weeks ago, talking with a mother in one of the camps," she said. "I asked her if she would like to go back to her home, and she said, 'We are so glad to be out of the area where shelling is constant. It was day and night that we had this multi-barreled shelling that makes the ground tremble. And we're just so relieved to be here in the safety of this camp.'

"So, a lot of people have lost hope," Ms. Paddison lamented.

A sense of normalcy for children

UNICEF is supporting a range of activities to alleviate the conflict's psychosocial impact on children. "We've got animators and young people working together with these children and teaching them about mine awareness, but also doing theatre and just play activities," said Ms. Paddison. "They're just trying to get a sense of normalcy to the youngsters, which is very important."

The situation in Sri Lanka poses many challenges, as multiple players enter the conflict and it become increasingly militarized. But UNICEF uses its large field presence to support children and families, and provide them with concrete services.

"In all families we have talked to, with all children," said Ms. Paddison, "we ask them: What is your hope for the future? In the other parts of the country, they all say they want to be a train driver [or] 'I want to be a doctor'. But in the conflict-affected areas, they don't say what they want to be, but what they want to have - which is peace. They all say they want the shelling to stop. They want peace."