Sri Lankan government must act now to protect 300,000 displaced

The humanitarian crisis in the Wanni region of northern Sri Lanka is worsening as the government fails to provide shelter and protect over 300,000 displaced civilians. Tens of thousands of families are now enduring the monsoon season with limited food, shelter, water or sanitation. They fled their homes to escape the fighting between the Sri Lankan military and the opposing Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). These civilians are trapped in the LTTE-controlled Wanni region. The Tigers continue to forcibly recruit one person per family with recent steep recruitment of younger people. The LTTE have hindered people from moving to safer places by imposing a strict pass system. In some instances they have forced family members to stay behind to ensure the return of the rest of the family. The LTTE also controls the movement of displaced people within the Wanni. These measures seem designed in part to use civilians as a buffer against government forces. Denied outside aid and humanitarian assistance In September, the Sri Lankan government ordered the United Nations (UN) and non-governmental aid workers to leave the region. The government then assumed total responsibility for ensuring the needs of the civilian population affected by the hostilities are met. As yet, despite assurances that it has the situation under control, there is evidence to suggest that the Government of Sri Lanka lacks the capacity to provide the required humanitarian relief to displaced people and the civilian population in the Wanni. In particular, the government agencies and their staff will face difficulties in responding to the needs of the displaced without the assistance of the humanitarian agencies. The Indian government has recognised the gravity of the situation by choosing to send 2,000 tonnes of relief material to Sri Lanka. The deliveries are to be managed through the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The Sri Lankan government has refused to allow independent international monitors into the Wanni to oversee and ensure that convoys with food, medical and other essential supplies enter into the area, as well as to oversee the distribution of such supplies. Severe food shortages According to the World Food Programme WFP standard food list, approximately 773 tonnes of food is required per week to feed the 230,000 currently registered under the WFP scheme in the Wanni. The last three convoys only carried 650 tonnes, 750 tonnes and 462 tonnes of food each. So, immediate and long term food security remains an issue. It is estimated that approximately 35 percent of the Wanni’s rice and vegetable producing areas are no longer accessible. Displaced people report that they are already pawning or selling jewellery to buy basic food items. Lactating mothers and infants are especially vulnerable as they are not receiving adequate supplementary food to meet their specific needs. Tens of thousands without shelter By the time aid agencies had left on 16 September, they had built 2,100 temporary shelters. Government agents for the Kilinochchi and Mulaithivu districts have estimated that at least 20,000 families are in need of shelter. The Government of Sri Lanka’s recent suggestion that cadjan (palm leaf) is appropriate shelter does not live up to the minimum standards required for the shelter needs of the displaced. Many families are living in the open under makeshift shelters. Many displaced people have gathered in areas that were once paddy land and prone to flooding. Shelter agencies had previously assessed some of this land as potential sites for displaced people and found them unsuitable. Recent images from the Wanni show that people have torn up rice sacks to hang over bits of wood in a desperate attempt to make their own shelters. Without proper shelter people are having problems keeping food and other essentials dry and are more vulnerable to snakes. “People’s access to livelihoods has shrunk. There’s no boat fishing and many people are displaced from paddy lands…many of their fields are now conflict zones and full of unexploded ordnance,” said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Director. Lack of sanitation, safe drinking water and medicine The heavy monsoon rains last until mid February. The average monthly rainfall at the moment is 300mm. While the rains have slowed down the fighting, they have wreaked havoc on the displaced population. There is an increased risk of disease outbreak with limited access to medicines. The healthcare system in the Wanni desperately needs staff and supplies as hospitals have closed or been forced to move with the relocation of displaced populations. If malaria cases develop patients will find it hard to access relevant treatment. Local authorities have estimated 5,230 temporary toilets are needed. Ninety five percent of the displaced do not have proper latrine facilities, leave aside having separate toilet and sanitation facilities to meet the practical gender needs of women, according to local NGO workers who were engaged in constructing temporary toilets. Due to a blockade of cement, toilets cannot be built in the standard method and the Wanni health authorities have approved a toilet with the basin set on wooden floor and drums sunk into the ground as pits. Unless immediate action is taken Wanni health authorities fear it may be too late to save the displaced population from outbreak of epidemics. Acute shortage of safe drinking water has already precipitated a crisis resulting in the development of various water-borne ailments including diarrhoea. Health officials said the safe water and sanitation in the region has become a major problem causing infections. Amnesty International is calling upon the Sri Lankan government to give assurances of unimpeded humanitarian access to provide for the immediate material needs of the displaced and assure their safety. The government must ensure the safety and support of humanitarian workers and their families, especially those who remain in the Wanni. “The Sri Lankan government and the LTTE must allow international monitors to assess the needs of the thousands of people trapped in the Wanni and to ensure proper distribution of food and other resources. Furthermore, international staff played an indispensable role in protecting local humanitarian aid workers from the LTTE’s abuses,” said Sam Zarifi.