Displaced children and families at risk in Jaffna, Sri Lanka

By Blue Chevigny

NEW YORK, USA, 20 September 2006 – Despite a ceasefire officially in effect in Sri Lanka, the conflict between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and government forces has brought escalating violence to the Jaffna District on the northern tip of the island nation. Shelling and skirmishes between the two groups are a frequent occurrence there.

As a result of the violence, 60,000 people – nearly half of them children – have been displaced into camps. A majority of the displaced are from the families of fishermen, farmers and day labourers, all of whom have lost their livelihoods due to the conflict.

Most of the humanitarian workers in the region, who were in Sri Lanka to help rebuild after the tsunami that struck a year and a half earlier, left in August due to the dangerous conditions.

“The power has been cut,” says the head of UNICEF’s Jaffna office, Judith Bruno. “In the last few days we have only one hour of electricity. There is no petrol in Jaffna. There are no construction activities. Everything has stopped.”

Serious health effects

Roads to Jaffna are blockaded because of the increased violence, which started on 11 August, and emergency supplies are not getting into the district by land. According to Ms. Bruno, two boatloads of government provisions have been delivered, including a total of 5,000 metric tons of food.

“This is against a need of more than 10,000 metric tons for the whole population for a month,” she said. “If food shortages continue, children and mothers will face serious effects on their health. We are on the verge of a serious problem.”

In one of the camps for displaced people, Ms. Bruno reported, she met a mother of five children “who had no idea what to feed her children for breakfast.” Queues for bread start in the camps at five in the morning.

Dealing with stress

Children are the ones most affected by displacement, suffering from the scarcity of water and sanitation facilities, lack of adequate food, no electricity and conditions too dangerous to attend school.

“You must remember that last year they were displaced by the tsunami,” said Ms. Bruno. “And now again they are displaced, and many of them have lost family members in the conflict. It will take some time to be able to deal with this emotional stress.”

UNICEF is working to help these children with their psychosocial well-being, encouraging them to participate in play activities, arts and singing.

Emergency family kits

In collaboration with the Sri Lankan Government, UNICEF and its partners are providing aid on several other fronts as well.

For example, they have supplied plastic water tanks, each holding 1,000 litres, to the 30 or so displacement camps in Jaffna. And they have given displaced families emergency kits containing sleeping mats, bedsheets, cooking pots and water purification tablets.

“UNICEF calls on all parties involved in the conflict to adhere to the ceasefire,” said Ms. Bruno. Until they do, children and families in Jaffna and throughout Sri Lanka’s conflict-affected areas will continue to struggle.