Press Conference by United Nations Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator on Humanitarian Situation in Sri Lanka

23 April 2009

Press Conference by United Nations Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator on Humanitarian Situation in Sri Lanka

23 April 2009
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York




With heavy fighting between Sri Lankan troops and rebel forces threatening thousands of desperate civilians packed into a tiny, five-square-mile area along the island country’s north-eastern coast, a senior United Nations humanitarian official today urged the Government to allow an assessment mission into the conflict zone to begin facilitating relief operations and evacuation procedures.

Speaking at a Headquarters press conference, Catherine Bragg, Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator expressed “serious concern” about the situation in the Vanni region, where an estimated 50,000 civilians were still caught in the crossfire between the Sri Lankan military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) following the launch of a major Government offensive in late January.

She said that Vijay Nambiar, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Chief of Staff, had visited Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, late last week to discuss the possibility of a United Nations humanitarian assessment team, but the world body had not yet received permission to enter the conflict zone or monitor the screening of thousands of exhausted civilians who had managed to escape the fighting.  They had travelled overland for days to reach near-capacity camps set up to receive internally displaced persons.

“It has been a few days and we have not seen any movement [on allowing an assessment team in] and we hope that there will be movement very soon so that the team will be able to go to the area,” she continued, stressing that the situation was “quite critical”, especially following reports that the fighting was escalating.  The United Nations considered both the army’s continued use of heavy weapons in the vicinity of civilians and LTTE’s use of force in preventing their departure from Vanni area to contravene international humanitarian law.

She said the Government had estimated that some 100,000 people had fled the conflict zone, but added:  “We have no way of verifying that.”  The United Nations, along with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), was continuing to call for access to the conflict zone to assess the humanitarian situation and be able to provide relief supplies in a meaningful way.  The two organizations were also asking to be present at screening centres to monitor the treatment of civilians on their way to camps, mostly in Jaffna and Vavuniya.

The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) was seriously concerned about the nutrition and health situation of people who had remained in Vanni as well as those who had fled to the camps, she continued.  Current information was that some 26,000 new internally displaced persons had arrived at transit sites in Jaffna and Vavuniya, bringing the total camp population to some 95,000, up from the 80,000 or so reported yesterday.  With an expected influx of more than 100,000 people in the coming days and weeks, there was an urgent need to identify more camp sites, and the United Nations had requested the Government to make that search a priority.  “There are quite a number of issues regarding the camps.”

Asked about reports that families were being separated on entering the camps, Ms. Bragg said she had heard the reports and OCHA was encouraging the Government to keep families together.  In reply to a related query about civilians not being able to leave the camps on their own, she said OCHA was also trying to convince the Government that it was in everyone’s best interest to allow people to leave.

On another issue, she said that, while the camps provided basic necessities like food, water, shelter and medicines, she was, nevertheless, concerned about the adequacy of medical facilities in light of the anticipated influx of people, especially because some of them might have serious injuries requiring attention.

She went on to say that the Government had been encouraged to move some of those already in the camps to alternative sites outside Vavuniya or elsewhere.  They could also be placed with host families to relieve the pressure on existing facilities and make way for new arrivals.  “We think it is in the best interest of the Government of Sri Lanka, as well as the [internally displaced persons], to be able to leave these camps as soon as possible.”

Responding to other questions, she said OCHA really had no clear picture of the situation inside the conflict zone.  Moreover, while ICRC had been able to land some supply ships off the coast, its staff had not been allowed to carry out a needs assessment or speak with trapped civilians.  Planning remained under way, and if an assessment mission were approved, it would be headed by Neil Buhne, Humanitarian Coordinator for Sri Lanka, assisted by representatives of United Nations agencies on the ground.  However, an advance security assessment team would head to the Vanni region before any humanitarian team was deployed.

As for reports about United Nations staff allegedly being held in the camps and screened for ethnicity, she said the host Government had obligations to provide for the safety and security of all the Organization’s staff, including the 13 in camps.  Yesterday, the Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations had given an assurance that the issue would be looked into “as expeditiously as possible”.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.