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One year on, conditions worsen for war-displaced Sri Lankans

NEW DELHI (Reuters AlertNet) - As Sri Lanka marks the first anniversary of the end of the war, shortages of food and water and outbreaks of disease are plaguing tens of thousands of war-displaced who are still living in camps, aid workers say.

Children walk past clothes hanging out to dry at Manik Farm Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp near Vavuniya, 254 km north of Colombo, December 23, 2009. REUTERS/Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Files

The fighting forced almost 300,000 people to flee their homes in the north of the Indian Ocean island in the final phases of the conflict, which pitted separatist Tamil Tiger insurgents against government troops for a quarter of a century.

Since the war ended on May 19 last year - with President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government declaring victory over the Tamils - most of the displaced have returned to their villages to try and rebuild their lives.

But around 80,000 Sri Lankans still remain in displacement camps and face a deteriorating humanitarian situation as aid agencies pull out due to a shortage of funds, relief workers say.

Many donors stopped providing funding for assistance to camps in November 2009 and the impact of this was seen in the early months of this year, according to aid workers.

“Our monitors who visit the displacement camps on a daily basis are reporting the effects of the lack of funding,” said Margaret Vikki, country director of the Norwegian Refugee Council in Sri Lanka.

“This is in the form of rations of complementary food such as vegetables, oil, milk, sugar and spices being stopped, water rations also being much lower, and increasing outbreaks of communicable diseases in the camps.”

NGO PULLOUT

The U.N. warned on Monday that it had received less than a quarter of the $337 million it needs this year to support populations in camps as well as those who are returning to their war-ravaged villages.

Neil Buhne, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Colombo, blamed donor fatigue, high budget deficits brought on by the financial crisis and more severe emergencies such as the January earthquake in Haiti as reasons for the poor donor response.

At the peak of the crisis in April last year, aid workers were overwhelmed by the exodus of people who were fleeing the war zone and eventually seeking refuge in camps such as sprawling Manik Farm site in Vavuniya district.

Dozens of international aid agencies supported national relief organisations in getting food, water, shelter as well as sanitation, health and education services to the overcrowded camp.

But now, as Sri Lanka’s humanitarian community struggles to fund its activities - and focus shifts to supporting the hundreds of thousands of people who are returning to their shelled homes and mine-infested villages - aid agencies are forced to make some very difficult choices.

“We have to work where the need is greatest, and the need is greatest in the areas of return,” said Christian Aid’s Country Director Brian Martin, whose organisation was providing 4,000 families with food at the height of the peak of the crisis, but was forced to stop camp work in April due to a lack of funds.

“But we must not forget those left behind in the camps ... we are still looking for more funding so that we can go back and support relief work there.”

Relief workers estimate that more than half of the international aid agencies have either withdrawn or reduced their activities, resulting in a major relief deficit.

UNABLE TO WASH

Complementary food rations were stopped in January this year, aid workers said, forcing camp-dwellers to sell-off their rations of pulses and rice in order to buy missing food items.

Water provisions - where 15 litres per person is the international humanitarian standard - have been reduced to seven litres per person.

Vital resources, which the displaced have been dependent on for months, are also being diverted as increased attention goes to rehabilitating returning communities.

Water bowsers are being diverted to areas of return and even schools in the camps are being affected as teachers are returning to their homes.

Aid workers also say there has been an increased outbreak of communicable diseases like mumps and diarrhoea, mainly due to poor hygiene and sanitation conditions which have worsened after relief work stopped.

“Many NGOs were giving out hygiene kits which included soap, detergent, toothpaste and sanitary materials - but now that has stopped,” said the NRC’s Vikki.

“People are saying that they can’t even afford soap to wash themselves and their clothes which is a serious issue in terms of hygiene and sanitation.”

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