24 April 2009
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

press conference by representative of United Nations

 

High Commissioner for Refugees in Sri Lanka

 


With fresh displacement now topping 100,000 as civilians continued to flee Sri Lanka’s war-torn north-eastern coast, a senior United Nations official in the country warned today that ill-prepared camps in the region were in danger of being overwhelmed by the influx, and urged the Government to move quickly to make new sites available while raising the level of care in the existing facilities.


Speaking at a Headquarters press conference, Amin Awad, Representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Sri Lanka, said that in the past 72 hours, 100,000 desperate civilians were on the move, fleeing heavy fighting between Government forces and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the north-eastern coastal belt of the Mullaitivu district.


Some 25,000 internally displaced persons had been screened at the Killinocchi processing centre and then dispersed among 32 Government-administered camps, mostly in Vavuniya, Jaffna and Mannar, he said.  Some 180,000 people were now in the camps, straining the capacity of humanitarian agencies on the ground, which were already handicapped by limited access to some facilities.  The refugee agency, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and other organizations were still asking the Government to provide land for new camp sites, to make public buildings available and to reconsider the option of moving some of the displaced persons in with host families to help relieve the pressure on the camps.  That would ease overcrowding and improve sanitation conditions in the camps.


“And above all, there are 75,000 people still in Killinochi, and I want to see my staff go in there, hand in hand with the civil administration to provide assistance as people are waiting to be processed,” he said, stressing that the internally displaced persons there were weak, exhausted and in very poor shape.  Killinochi was under military control and UNHCR was concerned that civilians there were being housed in processing centres or public buildings rather than being screened and released.  The agency was also concerned about the estimated 50,000 people still trapped by fighting in the conflict zone in and around Vanni.


“We have asked the Government to restrain itself; we don’t want a catastrophe […] we just want these people to reach safety,” he said, adding that the agency was also asking the LTTE to ensure a calm and orderly evacuation, especially given the ever present danger of landmines along the most common escape routes.  “Orderly movement out of this zone will make it much safer for the displaced population.”


Answering a series of questions about conditions in the camps, which some non-governmental organization had described as cramped and running low on supplies, Mr. Awad said the UNHCR was engaged with the Government on a host of issues regarding those facilities.  It had provided the authorities with an aide-memoire late last year, laying out the minimum standards with respect to international humanitarian law and the treatment of internally displaced persons.


He said UNHCR had provided the guidance note “as a contingency” to outline specific sets of principles that should be followed on such issues as freedom of movement; right of family visitation; delivery of services; humanitarian access; registration; and civilian characteristics of camps managed by military officials.  But right now the Government “is far away” from the minimums standard of treatment agreed by the international community and outlined in the aide-memoire.


While hoping the Government would reconsider its position and apply those minimum standards, he said, the agency had been encouraged by some of the steps taken thus far, such as releasing “special needs” persons, including elderly people, pregnant women, young children, people suffering from severe trauma and those with disabilities.


“[But] this is not enough,” he said, stressing that, while a few thousand people might have been allowed to leave the camps, that number was “negligible” considering the total figure was 80,000 or more.  “This should not be collective punishment.  The Government has the opportunity to register people, provide them with IDs and allow them to leave with immediate effect.”


He noted that, while non-governmental organizations and United Nations agencies had access to Vavuniya, such was not the case in Mannar and some camps in Jaffna.  UNHCR was advocating particularly hard to have access granted to civil society groups that could help relieve some of the “tremendous pressure” on the United Nations, as well as the Government, in light of the new influx of displaced persons.


As for administration of the camps, he said the Government had set up police and civil administration inside the camps in Jaffna, where the military was operating on the periphery.  However, that was not the case in Vavuniya, where UNHCR was urging the Government to institute the “good practices” employed in Jaffna.


He went on to reiterate the agency’s call on the Government to do more to relieve the pressure in the camps, especially those in Vavuniya, “which is overwhelmed”, and Trincomalee, by making public buildings available.  As for United Nations remaining in the camps, the Organization was asking for their release so they could return to their respective agencies and continue providing assistance on the ground.


Also during the press conference, Security Council President Claude Heller of Mexico made remarks “underlining the immediate and pressing priority in addressing the grave humanitarian situation […] in particular the plight of tens of thousands of civilians still trapped in the conflict area and those displaced by the conflict”.


He said members of the Council welcomed the Secretary-General’s decision to dispatch a United Nations humanitarian team to the combat zone, as well as reports of the escape from that area of tens of thousands of civilians.  Council members also called on the Sri Lankan Government to extend “all necessary support” to the United Nations team, and to allow the Organization and the ICRC access to all sites where displaced persons were being registered and provided with shelter.


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For information media • not an official record