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ICRC demands full access to Sri Lanka camps


The Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has called for full access to all displacement camps in Sri Lanka.

ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger said the organisation is barred from visiting some camps in Sri Lanka where people are being held since government forces defeated the Tamil Tiger rebels.

The United Nations says in all nearly 300,000 ethnic Tamils are being housed in displacement camps in northern Sri Lanka in wretched conditions after being driven from their homes.

The ICRC has asked for access to all displacement camps to check on conditions and see how residents are treated, but the present situation is “not satisfactory”, said Kellenberger.

“Access that the Sri Lankan government has granted is still not clear,” he said, adding that discussions are continuing between the ICRC and the Sri Lankan authorities.

Kellenberger says some of the people in the camps are being “interned” for security reasons. He declined to elaborate when speaking to journalists on Wednesday at the launch of the 2008 ICRC annual report.

State of emergency

Rights activists have criticized the government for preventing people inside the largest camp from leaving. They say those who were uprooted by the civil war should be free to chose where they want to stay.

The Sri Lankan government said on Wednesday it would maintain its state of emergency, including sweeping anti-terrorism powers, after the defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels on the battlefield.

Sri Lanka’s president on Sunday rejected a call by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to lift restrictions on aid delivery to overcrowded displacement camps, saying the army must first finish screening the hundreds of thousands of Tamils.

The government last week declared an end to the 25-year war against the rebels after a three-year military campaign to recapture the region the Tigers had ruled as a de facto independent state. Rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and the top tier of the Tiger leadership were killed in the final battle.

Greater support

On Wednesday Kellenberger called for greater humanitarian support for the 300,000 displaced Tamils.

“The direct humanitarian consequences of the conflict are immense. We have to increase aid,” he said, adding that he was especially concerned about medical assistance.

The ICRC president made the remarks at the launch of the ICRC’s 2008 annual report in Geneva.

Kellenberger expects humanitarian needs to continue to rise this year due to the deteriorating situation in a number of countries, on top of the global economic crisis.

In 2008 the Swiss-run organisation spent a record SFr1.1 billion ($1 billion) helping war victims around the world.

The ICRC said deteriorating conditions in many countries, including Sri Lanka, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Pakistan had necessitated increased spending.

“Afghanistan, Somalia and Pakistan are three examples of countries where natural disasters and high food prices have made life even harder for poor people already struggling to cope with the effects of war,” Kellenberger declared.

The ICRC president said 2008 was marked by the heavy toll on civilians who were either targets or were hit because warring parties fought indiscriminately.

“Much of this suffering could have been avoided if conflict parties had improved their compliance with international humanitarian law,” Kellenberger said.

Although it was hard to predict the precise impact of the global economic crisis on war victims, Kellenberger said rising numbers of people living in extreme poverty, higher global unemployment and a significant drop in remittances from migrant workers to their families in conflict areas could have a particularly severe effect on the poorest victims of armed conflicts.

Looking back

Last year, the organisation worked in a wide variety of conflict zones.

Almost half of last year’s spending went to Africa, in particular Sudan (SFr109.9 million) and Somalia (SFr102.3 million), with other major operations in Iraq (SFr95.5 million) and elsewhere in the Israel and the Occupied and Autonomous Territories (SFr62.1 million), Sri Lanka (SFr30 million), Afghanistan (SFr69.8 million) and Pakistan (SFr24.9 million).

The Swiss-run organisation said the higher expenditure also reflects better humanitarian access to victims in countries like Iraq, the Sahel region in Africa, Somalia and Georgia that other relief agencies had more trouble reaching.

The ICRC is currently preparing for an intensifying humanitarian crisis in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province. The ICRC and the Pakistan Red Crescent Society said in early May it would provide 120,000 internally displaced people affected by the fighting with food and essential relief items. The ICRC has access to Buner and Lower Dir districts but Swat province remains out of bounds for security reasons.

Earlier this month it also announced it would scale up its operations in eastern DRC in response to the deterioration of the humanitarian situation that has taken place since autumn 2008.

The lack of security arising from ongoing clashes and military operations is exacerbating the already bleak conditions for over 300,000 displaced people and their host communities in North Kivu and is having a devastating impact on people’s livelihoods.

Simon Bradley,

In 2008 the ICRC provided over 121,000 tonnes of food, more than twice as much as in 2007, to some 2.8 million people.

Its water, sanitation and construction projects supported 15 million people. Around 3.5 million benefited from ICRC-supported health care facilities.

ICRC delegates visited almost half a million people deprived of their freedom in 83 countries.

In collaboration with National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies around 667,000 Red Cross messages were exchanged between family members separated by hostilities and other crises.

In 2008 total field expenditure amounted to a record SFr1.1 billion, compared with SFr944 million in 2007.

The ICRC employed around 11,000 people worldwide, of whom 1,323 were field delegates and 816 staff based at the Geneva headquarters.

The network has three components.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), founded in Geneva in 1863, operates worldwide, helping the victims of war and internal violence, acting as a neutral mediator in cases of conflict, and promoting knowledge and respect for humanitarian law. The ICRC’s headquarters are in Geneva and the organisation has more than 12,000 staff in 80 countries around the globe.

There are 186 National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies around the world, which form the backbone of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. Each national society is made up of volunteers and staff, who provide a wide variety of services, ranging from disaster relief and assistance for the victims of war, to first aid training and restoring family links.

The national societies are grouped in the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which was founded in Paris in 1919. The federation promotes the humanitarian activities of national societies among vulnerable people. By coordinating international disaster relief and encouraging development support it seeks to prevent and alleviate human suffering. It also has its headquarters in Geneva and oversees 1,300 staff worldwide.

Worldwide, there are around 100 million Red Cross and Red Crescent staff, members and volunteers.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR