(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Rising concerns over thousands trapped in conflict areas

Civilians who escaped the fighting are now at a government welfare centre in Vavuniya District
Sanajay Nallaperuma/Internews

Concerns are rising over the safety of tens of thousands of civilians trapped in conflict-affected areas in northern Sri Lanka without safe passage out of the fighting.

Officials from the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said more than 230,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the Vanni remain precariously close to heavy fighting between government forces and cadres from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

"In Sri Lanka, strict compliance with international humanitarian law is all the more critical with the intensification of fighting in the Vanni region and reports of intermittent artillery fire into civilian populated areas in recent weeks," John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, stated in his report to the Security Council in New York on 14 January.

Holmes said civilians had been denied the right to escape the fighting. "I am, however, concerned that some 350,000 civilians, including IDPs, are trapped in an increasingly confined space and effectively prevented from leaving by Tamil Tiger rebels. This raises deep concerns over the possible use of civilians to render areas immune from military operations."

A map of Sri Lanka showing the situation for internal displacement and humanitarian access

Carte des déplacements internes et de l’accès humanitaire au Sri Lanka Voir la version complète de la carte au format IMAGE ou PDF, ainsi qu’un profil pays du Sri Lanka ...
A map of Sri Lanka showing the situation for internal displacement and humanitarian access
Monday, January 19, 2009
Des milliers de civils en danger – Nations Unies
A map of Sri Lanka showing the situation for internal displacement and humanitarian access
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A map showing internal displacement and humanitarian access in Sri Lanka
See full version IMAGE or PDF of this map and a Sri Lanka country profile

Freedom of movement

The UN has called on the LTTE to ensure freedom of movement. "In accordance with international humanitarian law, the United Nations calls upon the LTTE to allow civilians to be able to move freely to areas where they feel most secure and for the Government to receive newly displaced people according to internationally agreed principles," Holmes said in statement released by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in New York on 16 January.

The ICRC said civilians were being concentrated in a shrinking area, increasingly jeopardising their safety. "Because of ongoing combat operations and the moving frontline, tens of thousands of displaced civilians are concentrated in an area so small that there are serious concerns for their physical safety and living conditions, in particular in terms of hygiene," the ICRC said in its latest monthly bulletin released on 16 January. 

The ICRC remains the only agency with a permanent presence in the region after UN and other international relief agencies relocated out of the Vanni in September 2008 following a government security directive.

The unstable security situation had made arranging safe passage for UN and government supply convoys, ambulances and other humanitarian vehicles difficult, the agency stated.

"In addition, the ICRC has to negotiate safe passage over a distance of up to 30km between government- and LTTE-held areas with the parties every day."

It had to wait five days before being able to escort the latest convoy on 16 January. ICRC officials in the capital, Colombo, said on 2 January a convoy returning from the Vanni was caught in the fighting; a truck was damaged and the driver sustained minor injuries.

Hundreds flee

The government said more civilians were expected to flee the fighting and it was making arrangements to accommodate at least 30,000 families at three locations in Vavuniya District, 250km north of Colombo.

"More people are expected to enter government-controlled areas in the near future. Government is standing by in preparation to provide all relief measures to those coming," Member of Parliament and adviser to President Mahinda Rajapakse, Basil Rajapakse, said at a media briefing on 18 January.

While most of those escaping the fighting have been moving south, others are moving north of the Vanni, towards the Jaffna Peninsula. K Ganesh, the government agent for the Jaffna District, the highest ranking public official in the district, said that by 17 January 1,200 persons had sought refuge in Jaffna.

"If the people have more friends and relatives in Jaffna District, they'll come north to live with them. Family and friends are the deciding factor that motivates the people to go to Vavuniya [south] or Jaffna."


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