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UNHCR concerned about safety of Tamil refugees in Lanka

October 01, 2009 10:11 IST
The United Nations refugee agency is deeply concerned about the safety of the more than 250,000 displaced people in northern Sri Lanka after reports of security lapses inside the camps where they are currently living.

'The United Nnations High Commission for Refugees calls upon the Sri Lankan government to ensure the protection and physical security of the Internall Displaced Persons and to undertake a swift investigation into the event,' the agency said.

The most recent incident took place September 26 in the Menik Farm camp in Vavuniya district when security forces reportedly attempted to stop a group of internally displaced persons from moving between two zones of the camp.This angered the IDPs who subsequently attacked the sentries, according to a news release issued by the UNHCR.

Security personnel then reportedly opened fire to disperse the mob. Several people are said to have been injured, including a child who was hit by a stray bullet and is now paralyzed. There are also reports of several people being detained following the disturbance.

The IDPs have been restricted to the camps since May when the overnment declared an end to its military operation against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam concluding more than two decades of fighting.

The independent UN human rights expert,Walter Kälin, who is dealing with IDPs said that the restoration of freedom of movement for Sri Lankans confined to the camps is becoming 'a matter of urgency.'

Kälin, who just wrapped up a visit to the country, said he remained 'very concerned about the very slow pace of releases' from the camps.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told a news conference in New York  on Tuesday that the Lankan government has re-affirmed its commitment to allow displaced persons to return to their homes by January 2010.

The UNHCR noted that the incident over the weekend reinforces the calls by the UN and others to the Sri Lankan government to accelerate the return process and restore freedom of movement for those displaced who choose to remain in the camps.It also shows the need to implement the host family program that the government has announced, and which the UN has welcomed, which allows citizens to host IDPs, the agency added.

A major concern at the moment is the approaching monsoon season, as rains are likely to lead to flooding of low lying areas of the camps, causing further deterioration of living conditions and posing possible threats to the health and safety of the IDPs.

UNHCR and its partners have been working since June, at the request of the Lankn government, to prepare the Menik Farm site for the rainy season. 'However, the UNHCR has advised the Government that the sites are not adequately equipped to cope with the monsoons given the number of IDPs residing there,' said the agency.

Menik Farm consists of seven zones and is one of 21 closed camps spread across Vavuniya, Jaffna, Mannar and Trincomalee districts, which accommodate more than 2,50,000 people displaced by the conflict.

Suman Guha Mozumder in New York