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Sri Lanka: helping families keep in touch across the front line

30-01-2009 Interview

The conflict in northern Sri Lanka has affected some 200,000 civilians in the Vanni. The majority have fled their homes, while others are at risk of displacement in this volatile situation. Many have not been able to talk to their families in recent days and weeks. Monica Zanarelli, the ICRC’s deputy head of operations for South Asia, explains the organization's efforts to re-establish family links in an extremely volatile situation.

   

   
 
  Monica Zanarelli, ICRC’s deputy head of operations for South Asia    
     

 Has the fighting forced people to move away from their homes?  

Over 2,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) have reached the region of Vavuniya. Approximately the same number have arrived in the Jaffna P eninsula. These areas are controlled by the government, and displaced persons are living at permanent sites under the control of civil and military authorities. Due to security concerns, their movements are restricted and family visits are limited. Government authorities are expecting the number of IDPs coming from the Vanni region to increase by tens of thousands in the coming weeks.

 What are their needs concerning the re-establishment of family links (RFL)?  

Ever since people started moving from and within the Vanni, the ICRC has been assessing their needs in this respect. Until now, telecommunications and the postal service have worked well throughout Sri Lanka and most people were able to communicate with their families abroad or in other areas of the country. However, due to increased restrictions on movement, the ICRC expects people to need considerably more help in restoring or maintaining contact with their relatives in the coming days and weeks.

Today, communication is extremely limited for families staying in the LTTE-controlled area of the Vanni. The ICRC, Red Cross Societies and Red Crescent Societies are getting more and more requests from worried family members living abroad. Many have not heard from their loved ones for weeks or even months, and they cannot contact them.

 Can the ICRC currently locate people displaced in the Vanni?  

Massive displacements in the Vanni make it impossible for the ICRC to locate individuals at this stage. The intense fi ghting is making it very dangerous for our teams and those of the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society (SLRCS) to move about.

The SLRCS and the ICRC are currently setting up priorities. The two organizations will first seek to reunite unaccompanied children with their families and transfer bodies across front lines, with the aim of returning them to their families.

 What is the situation in government-controlled areas?  

The situation is different for those who left the LTTE-controlled area and moved to the government-controlled side. The SLRCS and the ICRC have access to sites in this zone and are hoping to establish a permanent presence in these camps so as to help restore contact between people in the camps and their relatives elsewhere in Sri Lanka and abroad. We will be using " Safe and Well " messages for this, together with telephone calls.

 Given the current situation, are there limits on what the ICRC and the SLRCS can do to help families stay in touch?  

At this stage, the Family Links Network is unable to collect Red Cross Messages and individual tracing requests for people living in the Vanni.

However, the SLRCS and the ICRC are currently in a position to accept Red Cross Messages and individual tracing requests for people originally from the Vanni who have moved to other areas controlled by the Government of Sri Lanka.