Aid workers in Sri Lanka face escalating risk and red tape

International NGOs dealing with the tsunami's aftermath and renewed fighting get an increasingly hostile reception.

Although the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government recently expressed interest in renewed negotiations, the specter of brutal killings, abductions, and disappearances continues to hang over the island nation. Just last week, 11 Muslim civilians were killed in the eastern province of Ampara.

International and local aid workers dealing with the humanitarian crises created by the conflict as well as the 2004 tsunami worry about the steadily shrinking space for them to work in Sri Lanka.

Currently, they say, access to conflict-ridden areas is difficult, and escalating security concerns and government red tape are creating a stranglehold. On top of that, they often feel caught in the middle of the conflict.

Aid workers silently complain that Sinhalese hardliners browbeat them, often accusing them of being pro-Tamil. In recent days, there have been stray incidents of Sinhalese mobs attacking convoys of aid workers in Muttur.

And in Tiger-held territories in the eastern Ampara district, Sri Lankan aid workers employed with international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have been reportedly intimidated by the Tigers to make them quit working in the region.

"We never take sides," says an aid worker. "But we feel sandwiched between the two sides."

The worsening security situation is apparent in the 419 abductions – mostly Tamil civilians – reported by the country's Human Rights Commission since last December. Tuesday, fierce fighting broke out between the Sri Lankan navy and the naval wing of the Tigers along the eastern coast, leading to casualties on both sides.

Since the conflict reignited this year, at least 215,000 people have been displaced and 1,900 killed. That's on top of the 325,000 displaced and 40,000 killed by the 2004 tsunami.

In the town of Muttur, in early August, 17 aid workers, mostly Tamils, from the French group Action Against Hunger (ACF), were mysteriously killed. The UN called it the deadliest attack on aid workers since the bombing of UN headquarters in Baghdad in 2003.

The Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission (SLMM) accused the government of orchestrating the killings. "Taking into consideration the fact that the security forces had been present in Muttur at the time of the incident, it appears highly unlikely to blame other groups for the killings," said Ulf Henricsson, the outgoing head of SLMM.

The government refuted the allegations, using forensic reports to suggest that the Tigers were in control of Muttur at the time. The government has said it will invite internationally reputed judges and activists to make an independent inquiry.

Before this incident, in early May, grenades were lobbed in the vicinity of three international NGOs offering tsunami relief in Muttur, injuring one foreign worker and several civilians. No suspects have be arrested, and all three agencies have quit Muttur.

Besides safety concerns, new bureaucratic formalities are stymieing aid agency efforts. In the wake of the ACF killings in August, the Sri Lankan government asked expatriate staff to apply for work permits.

Five hundred foreign nationals working for about 90 charities have applied but most have yet to receive permits. In the meantime, they say their vehicles are not allowed to go in or come out of the restive east. "Is it our fault that the government hasn't yet issued the permits?" asks an agitated aid worker requesting anonymity.

In addition, some aid workers fear the permits will be place- specific and impede access to restive or Tiger-controlled areas.

Creating more confusion, last month the government also made it mandatory for expatriate staff of agencies to register with the Defense Ministry. After failing to issue the registration, the government reversed the mandate – but didn't inform security forces manning government checkpoints.

"We've been very inconvenienced by the new, haphazardly implemented measures," says an aid worker. "We're here to work for the poor, for the needy. But we cannot if you put impediments in our way."

Steve Brick, an independent aid worker who organizes puppet shows in relief camps in coordination with UNICEF, is disillusioned by the new legislation. Amid delays in receiving his permit, he's been unable to schedule his shows around the Muttur area. "My puppets won't stop war," he says. "But my shows give them something to cheer about."

Government spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella denies the government is harassing international NGOs. He points out that a glut of aid workers – working with more than 1,000 NGOs – entered Sri Lanka immediately after the tsunami in December 2004 and have been working in all parts of the island including the war-zone in the north and east. They came on tourist visas but were working in the island, and this "has to be corrected," he says.

Although Jeevan Thiagarajah, executive director of the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies, an umbrella group for aid agencies in Sri Lanka, agrees the government is justified in introducing permits, he says, aid workers face a "generally unhelpful, hostile environment."

Mr. Thiagarajah worries that the incoherent implementation of the new legislation and the alarming security situation could lead NGOs to severely curtail their aid programs or leave the country entirely.

In the wake of the brutal killings in Muttur, ACF earlier this month announced it would scale back its operations.

The UN and the ICRC, too, warned earlier this month that if the mounting security threat does not lessen, they could stop their operations in Sri Lanka. Only UN agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross have access to Tiger-held territories and areas where the Tigers and government forces skirmish. Analysts warn of a catastrophe if they pull out.

A few aid workers who have received work permits are cautiously beginning to trickle back into the Muttur area.

"The government and the rebels need to be upfront and say that they will not impede or harm humanitarian workers or their work," Thiagarajah says.

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