Sri Lanka

International Development written statement – made at on 29 April 2009.

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Mr. Michael Foster:

I would like to update the House on my recent visit to Sri Lanka to assess the humanitarian situation. I urged the Government of Sri Lanka to support a ceasefire to allow the civilians still held in the conflict area to leave, to improve the conditions for the internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the Government controlled areas by dramatically increasing access for humanitarian agencies; and to focus the Government's mind on the need for the early return and resettlement of the IDPs. There are two distinct humanitarian groups of concern.

The first is the fate of the civilians caught up in the conflict area in north-eastern Sri Lanka. There is still uncertainty about the exact number of civilians who remain in the conflict area with estimates ranging from 20,000 to 70,000 civilians. However, the UN estimates that up to 50,000 civilians remain caught in an area measuring less than five square miles. Since September 2008, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been the only humanitarian agency allowed to have a presence in the conflict area by the Government of Sri Lanka. Approximately three times a week the ICRC ships food and emergency items such as blankets and medical supplies into the conflict area, and evacuates the wounded and their carers out of the conflict area. The fate of these remaining civilians is our most pressing concern. It is vital that they are able to move away from danger to safety under UN oversight, and that, in the meantime, humanitarian agencies have access to the conflict area to deliver humanitarian assistance.

The second is the 180,000 or more IDPs who have escaped the conflict area to camps under Government of Sri Lanka control; including the 113,000 who have arrived in the last ten days. I spoke with some of the IDPs in the camps. Many were traumatised by their experiences in the conflict area and concerned at being separated from members of their families. It is essential that these camps meet international standards and that the Government of Sri Lanka allows unrestricted access by humanitarian agencies to undertake their life saving work.

During my trip I urged the Government of Sri Lanka to abide by its public commitment to return 80 per cent. of the IDP population to their homes by the end of the year. It is vital that the camps are temporary in nature and that the IDPs are allowed to return home as quickly and safely as possible. The Government of Sri Lanka asked for UK help to respond to the humanitarian crisis and to return the IDPs back to their homes.

The UK will continue to provide support to mitigate the humanitarian crisis. During my visit I announced a further £2.5 million of humanitarian funding for Sri Lanka, bringing the total to £7.5 million. I would like to assure the House that all UK funding is provided directly to neutral and impartial international humanitarian agencies to save lives and reduce suffering. For example, on the 27 April, the UK contributed £500,000 to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to airlift 5,000 tents to provide temporary shelter for the IDPs; £3.1 million remains on hand to respond rapidly to needs on the ground.

The overriding imperative is for both sides to take all steps to safeguard civilian lives. The UK has repeatedly made clear that there can be no military solution and called again and again for a ceasefire. The Government of Sri Lanka's announcement, of an end of offensive operations using heavy weapons, made during my trip is a welcome first step. The LTTE must allow the civilians to leave the conflict area. Lasting peace in Sri Lanka can only come about through a fully inclusive political process that takes into account the legitimate aspirations of all Sri Lanka's communities—Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. The Sri Lankan Government must make a concerted drive to achieve a political solution. The UK Government will continue to press for urgent progress in all of these areas. To this end, the Foreign Secretary is in Sri Lanka today to meet President Rajapakse.