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Suffering of Batticaloa refugees deepens

One of thousands of Tamil families driven from their homes by Sri Lankan bombardment this year
Despite urgent appeals by aid agencies, over 200,000 Tamil people who fled their homes last month following intense Sri Lankan bombardment of their homes in Batticaloa district continue to languish in squalid refugee camps.
 
The international donor community remains indifferent to the plight of the IDPs (Internally Displaced People) even as Sri Lankan and international media have both ceased reporting on the escalating humanitarian crisis.
 
A lack of facilities in the makeshift shelters, a growing shortage of food, torrential rain and over-crowding are making living conditions unbearable and has turned the refugee camps into breeding ground for disease, aid workers say.
 
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) warned last week that human faeces, garbage and over crowding were creating serious health hazards in the camps.
 
“The grounds are littered with faeces and great patches of urine. Children urinate against walls, on tents and near water sources. School furniture has been burned for firewood,” UNICEF said in a statement.
 
The recent torrential rain has worsened the situation with several temporary shelters in Mankadu, Erivil, Kaluvanchikudy, Thethathivu and Vedar Kudiruppu collapsing.
 
According to the Kaluvanchikudy Regional Secretary heavy rain continuing for the third day collapsed temporary shelters in interim camps creating additional hardships.
 
Absence of proper drainage system has led to puddles of water inside tents in make-shift refugee camps.
 
Relief agencies say their operations in the war-torn eastern district lacks tents, medicine, baby food and clothes for the IDPs.
 
The scarcity of sheltering space has often resulted in three families having to share one tent.
 
In one location, only a hundred tents have been provided by the Government Agent Batticaloa where 700 are required to shelter the IDPs, the Regional Secretary added.
 
The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) last month made an urgent appeal for funds describing the situation ‘urgent and critical’.
 
According to Tamil media, with a ration of between just 100 and 200 grams of rice per family per day refugees are struggling to have even one square meal per day and shortage of milk food is severely affecting children.
 
According to WFP it can only look after the food needs of 100,000 IDPs through April and there are an estimated 240,000 IDPs in the district.
 
WFP said a lack of commitment to the Tamil refugees’ welfare from the Sri Lankan government has left thousands of others without food supplies.
 
“The district still awaits food to cover the government commitment of 40,000. Currently there is enough food in the district to cover 70,000 with the remainder being sent next month. However, some 30,000 people are still without food,” the Inter Agency Standing Committee, a combine of UN and other relief agencies said last month.
 
Mass displacements of people and the subsequent use of schools as refugee camps has disrupted the education of over 30,000 Tamil students.
 
“The sound of multi-barrel rockets being launched is just terrible. We know parents and children are staying away from school because they are too scared to go,” UNICEF Batticaloa Head Christina de Bruin said.
 
Squalid living conditions are not the only worry the IDPs in eastern Sri Lanka have. They are also living in fear of roving gunmen from the paramilitary Karuna Group and Sri Lankan soldiers.
 
Karuna group cadres are roaming the refugee camps intimidating and abducting refugees, aid agencies say.
 
In March Amnesty International raised the alarm about armed paramilitaries operating in refugee camps in government held territories but the practice continues.
 
Purna Sen, Asia Pacific director at Amnesty International said: “The Karuna faction appears to operate throughout Batticaloa town with the complicity of the Sri Lankan authorities.”
 
“The people who have been forced to flee the fighting are in an extremely vulnerable position: they have left behind their livelihoods and their homes, they may not know the area and they are likely to be very scared. The government has a responsibility to ensure that camps are safe and civilian in nature - it is unacceptable for men with guns to be wandering around as if they are in control,” She added.
 
Adding to the woes of the refugees, the Sri Lankan army has been forcefully resettling refugees in recently captured Vaharai, effectively using them as human shields, creating a buffer zone to protect themselves from any LTTE attacks.
 
Aid agencies have protested against this action by the security forces and UNHCR has reportedly withdrawn from all resettlement operations in the East.
 
“Any return to places of origin in accordance with the guiding principles of internal displacement should be voluntary, in safety and with dignity. UNHCR and other agencies have not yet done in-depth assessments in Vakarai. This is linked to sustainability and safety of return,” a statement issued in March by UNHCR said.
 
“The presence of TMVP [Karuna Group] armed cadres is reported in Vakarai and this may lead to security problems similar to those IDPs faced in the Batticaloa displacement sites,” the UNHCR added.
 
The overall security situation in Batticaloa district remains volatile with frequent clashes between the Sri Lankan army and the LTTE, according to aid workers and refugees.
 
“It is still very difficult to operate, the roads are closed, no communications and there is more fighting,” UN Spokesperson Orla Clinton said.

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