Sri Lanka refugee crisis offers no short-term solutions

The defeat of the LLTE rebellion force, known as the Tamil Tigers, by the Sri Lankan government has added a huge–and largely unspecified amount–of internally displaced persons (IDPs) to an already large refugee population.

Access to the northern sliver of the island where the IDPs are has been spotty for international relief organization and off-limits to the international media. The government, dominated by the Sinhalese ethnic majority in the country, has held tight access to region since the Tigers’ defeat and combat death of its long-time leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran.

Today, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is visiting the nation. A spokesman for Ban told the Associated Press he will press for greater access to the IDP population and a persistent effort to ease ethnic tensions. Whether or not war crimes charges will be brought against the Sri Lankan regime for alleged shelling and bombardment of civilians in the final push to defeat the Tigers will be taken up next week in the U.N. Haman Rights Council, the spokesman said.

Monica Zanarelli, deputy head of operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in South Asia said on the organization’s Web site that news and details from the battlefield region remain piecemeal.

“Tens of thousands of people trapped in the zone of fighting have had to endure unimaginable hardship over recent weeks, because there was hardly any place left that was safe, and access to medical care, food and water was totally inadequate,” Zanarelli said.

“Last Sunday morning, we lost contact with our team of some 20 national staff still in the zone. We therefore have no first-hand information about what has happened in the area since then. Yesterday, a few of the staff on the ground were able to send word that they were alive and outside the area where fighting had been taking place. We are still without news of the others and their family members.”

The North Carolina-based Christian relief organization Samaritan’s Purse also has a presence on the island. J. P. Mellis, Samaritan’s Purse’s regional director for South and East Asia, told Everyday Christian that the suffering in Sri Lanka does not lend itself to any short-term resolution from either refugee, political or ethnic standpoints.

Everyday Christian: What kind of presence does Samaritan’s Purse have there right now and what kind of assessment, if any, has the staff on the ground been able to make?

Mellis: Samaritan’s Purse didn’t have any access to the north while the final stages of the war were being executed. We have had some partners who live and operate in the northern region. I can say that in the last week or two they have been really overwhelmed. This information is second- and third-hand from people on the ground, but my guess is that there are approximately 50 IDP sites with approximately 200,000 IDPs. That number cannot be verified, it’s estimation.

Samartian’s Purse will initiate its response likely through partnerships and long-standing relationships in Sri Lanka. What is involved is a large area where water, food, shelter, medications and clothing will be needed. There will also be a need for milk powder for infants, as there undoubtedly children that have been orphaned.

Everyday Christian: There has been a lot in the international media the past few days about the need for the reconciliation between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. Realistically, what might this look like and how long might it take to achieve?

Mellis: I’m old enough to remember as a boy having friends who grew up in Northern Ireland and remember the tensions there between Protestants and Catholics. My daughter was there recently and she didn’t even know a conflict ever existed.

I think, believe hope and pray that kind of reconciliation can and will occur in Sri Lanka. It will take a long time. As the government is able to reach out, and as Tamils feel a sense of being responded to, and respect from the Sinhalese progress can be made. There will be bumps in the road and steps forward and backward. My prayer is that God will bring forth leaders on both sides and will build constructive relationships.

Everyday Christian: Beyond monetary donations, what are some of the ways ordinary concerned North American Christians can play a part in helping to alleviate the crisis?

Mellis: Certainly, this is a situation that needs a great deal of prayer. The war that has taken place will have a very strong impact of the quality of life of the people who live there for a long time. We need to pray that the political resolution will be pretty quick for basic quality of life issues and a reduction of suffering to be reduced. Where people can, through Samaritan’s Purse or other organizations or their churches, get involved they need to. The needs will persist for months, if not longer.

Everyday Christian: How much of the current IDP issues are still a result of the 2004 Indiana Ocean tsunami?

Mellis: There is little or virtually no IDP camps left from the tsunami in the eastern region of the country that was affected. In the area where we worked after the tsunami, I’m not aware of any IDP camps remaining.


Samaritan’s Purse in Sri Lanka:

International Committee of the Red Cross statement on Sri Lanka:


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