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Sri Lanka: displaced people anxious for news from families

29-05-2009 Interview

Displaced people in Sri Lanka not only need food, water and medical care. Thousands need to know whether relatives are alive and well. The ICRC is extending its work in IDP camps, but the needs are overwhelming, explains Jacques de Maio, ICRC head of operations for South Asia.


Jacques de Maio, the ICRC's head of operations for South Asia.    
     What are the most pressing needs of displaced people in the camps?  


The over 250,000 displaced people (IDPs) have many needs. In several waves of displacement over recent months, most lost almost all their personal belongings. Tens of thousands of them who were trapped in a narrow coastal strip in the north- eastern part of the country are the most vulnerable. They went through the harrowing experience of repeated forced displacement and living in a combat zone. A quarter of a million people now need food and drinking water, proper sanitation and shelter, access to medical care and essential items such as cooking utensils. Supplying the needy is an enormous task that is being undertaken by the government, several United Nations agencies, the ICRC and partner organizations in the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, and other local and international aid organizations. There is still a vast gap to be filled between what is being provided and the needs that must be met – for instance, thousands of people still lack adequate medical care. However, over and above material needs, many displaced people are anxious for news from loved ones with whom they lost contact during the displacement and fighting of the past few months.

 What exactly has the ICRC been able to do over the past few days?  

The ICRC has registered over 2,000 so-called surrenderees in three " rehabilitation centres " in and around Vavuniya and in other places of detention since 26 May. This registration process is continuing. Its purpose is to ensure the ICRC can keep track of each individual potentially at risk who is currently living in the centres set up by the Sri Lankan government.

In the last two days, the ICRC has gained access to previously restricted areas of Manik Farm, a large IDP camp in Vavuniya. We are continuing to distribute dry food, kitchen utensils, clothing and hygiene kits to IDP families in Manik Farm. So far, the ICRC has distributed supplies of this nature to over 2,400 families living in zones 3 and 4 of the camp.

In prin ciple, the ICRC has access to all IDP camps. However, there is still too big a gap between the IDPs’ humanitarian needs and what humanitarian organizations can currently do. The ICRC encourages the Sri Lankan authorities to do all it can to help IDPs, and to allow humanitarian agencies to operate wherever they are needed.


 What can the Red Cross do to help restore family links?  

©Reuters / D. Gray    
A Tamil woman with her children in the Manik Farm IDP camp near Vavuniya in northern Sri Lankan. 

Every year, the worldwide Family Links Network set up by ICRC and National Red Cross and Red Crescent Society tracing services helps hundreds of thousands of people restore contact with their loved ones or otherwise clarify what happened to them. In Sri Lanka, the ICRC and the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society have been helping displaced people and detainees restore an d maintain contact with their family members for decades. With over 250,000 displaced people living in camps, there is currently a huge need to provide a way of exchanging family news. The ICRC and the Sri Lanka Red Cross are offering to make their experience and their network available to the authorities in charge of the camps.

 Can you explain the goal of ICRC visits to detainees?  


Since 1989, the ICRC has been granted access by the authorities to visit people held in prisons and police stations. ICRC delegates monitor the detention conditions and treatment of people arrested in connection with the armed conflict, and share confidential reports with the authorities concerned. In 2008, the ICRC provided nearly 25,000 detainees in some 150 detention places with recreational items, such as indoor/outdoor games and books. We regularly visited six Sri Lanka Army servicemen held by the LTTE throughout the entire period of their captivity, and are happy that they were recently able to return to their families. We also conduct regular visits to security detainees in Boosa Detention Camp in southern Sri Lanka, and to former LTTE personnel in the hands of the security forces; in May, we spoke to over 2,500 of them.

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