Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 November 2015, 08:46 GMT

Sri Lanka: Mass exodus leads to massive humanitarian need

Publisher Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN)
Publication Date 23 April 2009
Cite as Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), Sri Lanka: Mass exodus leads to massive humanitarian need, 23 April 2009, available at: [accessed 26 November 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

COLOMBO, 23 April 2009 (IRIN) - International and Sri Lankan relief agencies and government authorities are scrambling all available resources, and sending out appeals for more assistance, after over 100,000 Sri Lankan civilians fled combat areas in the north in the past few days.

The UN in Colombo said teams were working around the clock to clothe, feed and shelter crowds of weary and hungry people.

"I saw infants with dysentery, malnourished children and women, untended wounds, and people dressed in the ragged clothing they've been wearing for months," Neil Buhne, UN resident coordinator in Sri Lanka, said in a statement on 23 April after visiting the new escapees from the combat zone.

"We need funds for all the basics, like food, medicine, water, sanitation, nutrition, shelter, and clothing. And we want to try to get kids as soon as possible back into school in order to give them some semblance of normality."

Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama met diplomats on the morning of 23 April, and appealed for more help for the surge of civilians arriving in government controlled areas, after the Sri Lankan army pierced a massive earth bund constructed by the Tamil Tigers.

The combat zone of recent days has been a 12-km-long strip of territory on the eastern coast of Mulaithivu District, northeastern Sri Lanka, but the Sri Lankan army is now in control of a 3km stretch of the zone, according to Defence Ministry sources.

Bogollagama said more civilians were expected to cross into government-controlled areas. He said the government expected at least 15,000 more civilians would flee in the coming days and that 15,000-20,000 civilians still remained trapped in the combat zone. Over 170,000 have fled the fighting since December 2008, according to Sri Lankan government figures.

Humanitarian emergency

"With the unprecedented influx of large numbers of people in such a short period of time, obviously we do face an emergency humanitarian situation," he told the diplomatic corps at the ministry, and appealed for urgent supplies for shelter, safe drinking water, sanitation and medicine.

Bogollagama said at a press conference that the US government had pledged to provide a field hospital, and India was sending 40,000 emergency family kits. The European Union had pledged US$22 million worth of assistance and other aid was in the pipeline. The Foreign Ministry had set up a task force to liaise with foreign donors and coordinate assistance.

The UN said it had released an appeal for $155 million to meet the anticipated increase in assistance in February but thus far had received less than one third of that amount.

"Many of these people were forced from their homes by fighting more than a year ago, and it is something of a miracle that they have survived such a terrible ordeal," Buhne said in his statement and warned of overcrowding in the existing "welfare sites".


Relief agencies working in the northern town of Vavuniya, where the bulk of the newly fled are arriving, said the situation on the ground had changed dramatically since the 20 April exodus.

"It appears that because of the sudden surge, there is a mismatch between the available resources and the massive needs," Menaca Calyaneratne, spokesperson for Save the Children Sri Lanka, told IRIN. "We need coordination at all levels to meet the needs of all these people."

Save the Children said it was prioritising by looking after the educational needs of displaced children and students who had their educations disrupted when their schools were taken over to house those fleeing the war. Calyaneratne said Save the Children would provide educational assistance to at least 37,000 students - a number that would surely rise with new arrivals.

Urgent need for medical aid

Doctors working in Vavuniya said in a website posting that there was also an urgent need for medical assistance.

"We've been seeing very severely wounded patients. The numbers of patients have increased rapidly over the last three or four days," Paul McMaster, a doctor with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), said. "We're seeing a stream of badly wounded people being brought in to us," he said in a web-post.

"Our hospital has got about 450 beds, and we've now got more than 1,700 patients in the hospital - on the floor, in the corridors, and even outside," he said.


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