SRI LANKA: East feels left behind as agencies move north


Communities in Sri Lanka's Eastern Province - a region of 1.5 million people still recovering from civil-war violence - fear they have been forgotten as humanitarian agencies shift recovery efforts to the north.

"There are no jobs here. I have to support my family with what I earn here," said Ravidranathan Valarmadhu, 18, from Pillumallai Village of Batticaloa District.

Her father is unable to work, her mother does odd jobs around the village and her younger brother is still in school, leaving Valarmadhu to work six days a week as a milk collector earning about US$17 a month.

After clearing separatist Tamil Tigers from the east three years ago, government forces moved into the Tiger stronghold in Northern Province, finally defeating them in May last year. Almost 300,000 people were displaced by the conflict in Northern Province, which has been the focal point of assistance.

Closing shop

Several international agencies working in the east have closed shop in the past year, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, which moved out after a government request, and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is closing its office in eastern Batticaloa District, where it has been since 2002. The agency will continue its eastern operations from Trincomalee.

"Our work there [Batticaloa] has been shrinking. This was a planned phasing-out," said Jennifer Pagonis, UNHCR deputy country representative in Sri Lanka. "Our office in Trincomalee will oversee this work. There will be no reduction of activity or closing down of any other offices."

Vinyagamourthi Muralitharan, deputy minister for resettlement, said UNHCR on 30 June discussed with him the closure of the Batticaloa office and continuation of UNHCR's work in the district.

"Most of the work that came under the UNHCR is now ending in Batticaloa. Their main workload now is in the north," Muralitharan told IRIN.

Almost all the displaced in Batticaloa have been resettled, according to UNHCR. Only 90 families - 433 individuals - are awaiting the completion of demining activities in their villages before resettling in the next few months.

UNHCR will maintain a small presence to the end of the year to provide non-food items and a 25,000-rupee ($212) cash grant to each returning family.

"There are other agencies that can look after the wellbeing of the people in the east," Muralitharan said. "We need the agencies like UNHCR that help the displaced to focus on the north right now."

Housing needs

"We need to build 346 new houses to replace those destroyed or damaged by the war," said Arumugam Balkrishnan, a government official in Pillumallai.

Vaharai, a village of 22,500 people about 90km northeast of Pillumallai, suffered massively in the 2004 tsunami, but rebuilding was halted when violence erupted in 2007, said Rasanayagam Rahulanayani, the top government official in the area.

"We were building at least 1,700 new houses when everything had to be stopped," she said, adding that now "we need to build at least 2,000 houses destroyed or badly damaged by the war".

More than 22,000 civilians displaced by the war have since resettled in Vaharai, according to the Divisional Secretariat.

Some NGOs working in the east are struggling to get funding for projects.

"We have made requests, but we are not sure whether we will get the funds," said Pon Sundarajan, deputy director of the North East Housing Reconstruction Programme.

"We have been able to complete only 13 percent of 22,000 new houses for the displaced in the district," he said. "There is no sign whether we will be able to complete the full quota."

(Source:IRIN News)