Sri Lankan 'detention' camps swell with Tamils
Aid workers struggle to help war-weary refugees as concerns grow about conditions in the shelters as well as timetables for resettlement.
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The relief effort in the camps is complicated by uncertainty over the timing of new arrivals. The military says it is close to defeating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which has been preventing civilians from fleeing its shrinking stronghold and is forcibly recruiting fighters. The UN estimates that between 50,000 and 100,000 are trapped there.Skip to next paragraph
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Those who emerge are exhausted by their ordeal and by months of dodging shelling and surviving on meager rations. Aid workers say malnutrition is more acute among recent arrivals compared with those who came in earlier waves of evacuations.
Crucially, not enough water is available. "The biggest issue is water. The dry season is coming up and this area doesn't have much water at the best of times," says Melanie Brooks, a spokesperson for CARE International, who toured a camp on Thursday.
The LTTE has accused the government of deliberately stopping food and medicine from reaching the war zone. Only one ICRC shipment of 30 tons has been delivered in the last month.
These deprivations make it crucial to scale up aid for evacuees, says Irene Gates, a relief worker in Vavuniya for World Vision. "If we got their basic needs covered, people may lose some of the trauma that you see in their eyes."
Is the North a coveted area or mere 'jungle'?
Even more contentious than upgrading the camps is the government's commitment to returning people to their homes, once the fighting ends. Tamils are deeply suspicious of how the military has depopulated much of the north, known as the Vanni, during its two year campaign and warn that majority Sinhalese could muscle in to what was once a breakaway state under the LTTE, which has fought since 1983 for an independent homeland in the northeast.
Government officials say they aim to resettle 80 percent of displaced Tamils by the end of the year, once the battlefields are demined. A similar program in Sri Lanka's East, where roughly 200,000 were displaced before the military defeated the LTTE in 2007, has already resettled 185,000 people, says Rajiva Wijesinha, head of the government's peace secretariat.
He dismisses the suggestion that migrants covet the undeveloped area. "As far as the Southerners are concerned, the Vanni is the jungle. It's always been seen that way," he says.
Sri Lanka has asked donors to support the resettlement camps. In February, the UN issued a $155 million emergency appeal, of which one-third has been met with pledges. Mr. Buhne says that the UN wants to see the displaced return home as soon as possible and points to the high cost of supplying vast refugee camps.
"It's expensive. You can't keep these people there too long, that's why it's important there are measures put in place really soon to give people the chance to leave these camps," he says.