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'We remain very concerned about the situation in the Tamil refugee camps'

By Archana Masih
September 18, 2009 12:49 IST
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Last week, the Sri Lankan government expelled the UNICEF spokesman in Colombo on charges that he made statements in favour of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam while highlighting the condition of children in Tamil refugee camps.

James Elder, the expelled Australian, has been ordered to leave the country by September 21.

It has been reported that two other United Nations staffers face detention by the Sri Lankan government which defeated the LTTE after a 25-year long civil war. President Mahinda Rajapakse's government has been consistently criticised by human rights groups for humanitarian violations and crushing political dissent.

UNICEF has rejected the allegation against Elder and defended him. Though Elder declined an interview, Sarah Crowe, UNICEF's chief of communication in South Asia, told's Archana Masih in an e-mail interview that the Sri Lankan government's allegations undermined UNICEF.

What reason did the Sri Lankan government give for Mr Elder's expulsion?

The Sri Lankan authorities gave somewhat contradictory reasons for the expulsion, accusing our communications chief in Sri Lanka of supporting LTTE terrorism amongst other allegations, directly undermining the professional credibility of a UNICEF professional and therefore the organisation itself.

Is there any hope for Mr Elder continuing with his work at UNICEF in Sri Lanka? Is there a possibility of the Rajapakse government cancelling the expulsion order and allowing him to continue?

No, James Elder will have to leave Sri Lanka by September 21.

Have there been instances of UNICEF or UN officials being expelled from other countries? Which countries are these? What have been some of the reasons for such expulsions?

I don't have this information at hand. However, it is very rare.

What is Mr Elder's next assignment for UNICEF? Is he still in Sri Lanka? If so, when will he be leaving?

He is due to leave by September 21. A new assignment will be found for him in due course. He has a family of three small children, so we have to take them and their schooling into account.

What impact has this expulsion had on UNICEF's work in Sri Lanka and in other strife-torn countries?

UNICEF works in some 150 countries and territories around the world, often in volatile areas, war zones and working in sensitive areas.

We are there to help children survive and thrive, from early childhood through adolescence.

Our mandate is to speak out on behalf of those who do not have a voice, and to be impartial advocates for child rights.

We are the world's largest provider of vaccines for developing countries. UNICEF supports child health and nutrition, good water and sanitation, quality basic education for all boys and girls, and the protection of children from violence, exploitation, and AIDS.

UNICEF is funded entirely by the voluntary contributions of individuals, businesses, foundations and governments.

What is the condition of children in the Tamil refugee camps in Sri Lanka? What are the biggest problems faced by the children? What is their greatest need?

We remain very concerned about the situation in the camps with some 250,000 still displaced in northern Sri Lanka.

Children and their families need to return to their homes and put the pieces of their old lives back together again after the trauma of conflict.

The pending monsoon rains (due in October) are likely to make things worse -- flooding, fear of disease spreading as a result -- so we are continuing to work with the Sri Lankan authorities to try and find alternative forms of accomodation such as living with host families if they resettled rapidly.

What cooperation does UNICEF have from the Sri Lankan government in its work with the children affected by the civil war?

We work with the Sri Lanka government as well as with civil society to try and improve the lives of children -- the camps are run by the government, but we assist in providing clean water and sanitation, temporary schooling, health and nutrition projects for pregnant and nursing mothers and small children.

What access does UNICEF have to the Tamil refugee camps? What are the other international aid agencies working in the country?

Access has improved, but the camps are run by the government. We have officers in Vavuniya serving the camps.

What is the future of these children in the refugee camps?

One cannot speculate, but the sooner they return to their former homes and their families rebuild their lives, the better their future will be.

The Sri Lankan government has been criticised for not accepting dissent or views contrary to the one held by the government -- how difficult is it to operate in such an environment?

It is always tough working in conflict areas. UNICEF has to and will hold true to its mandate -- advocating impartially for children. That is what we are there for.

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