Sri Lanka restricts aid visas, equates its camps with Italy’s

[TamilNet, Friday, 10 July 2009, 01:39 GMT]
Sri Lanka’s Disaster Management and Human Rights Minister, Mahinda Samarasinghe this week drew parallels between his government’s running of barbed-wire ringed militarized camps in which 300,000 Tamils are held with Italy’s management of camps for survivors of the L’Aquila earthquake. The state-owned Daily News also quoted Mr. Samarasinghe as saying Sri Lanka “would welcome all [foreign] help it can get if relevant organizations would fall in line with the national agenda.” On Thursday, the minister said future visa applications for foreign aid workers will be granted only if their work “could not be carried out by locals.”

The Minister’s comments equating Sri Lanka’s camps to Italy’s were made in a speech as Chief Guest at the inauguration of a National Symposium on “Promoting Knowledge Transfer to Strengthen Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Adaption” in Colombo.

The Minister had pointed out that 80,000 Italian earthquake victims in Akila were being looked after solely by one of its government arms, the Civil Protection Authority, supported by the Army and the Navy, the paper reported.

No UN, INGO, NGO presence is allowed in these camps and also journalists are escorted by designated officials when visiting these welfare centres, the paper quoted Mr. Samarasinghe as saying.

The Italian Government has taken an independent decision and others should honour it, he is reported to have pointed out.

He made the same observation two weeks ago, rejecting more international calls for free access to Sri Lanka’s militarized camps from which persistent reports emerge of killings, torture, rapes and even officials running a prostitution ring.

“The EU ambassador tells us that they want unfettered access to the camps. Yet Italy right under their noses is doing something quite different. So if Italy can do that why can’t Sri Lanka?” Mr. Samarasinghe asked.

“ Of course we are a developing country and we need assistance. That is why we have asked the UN to help but we are not willing to give anyone unfettered access because we are an independent sovereign country,” he said.

Unnecessary meddling in domestic affairs would bring forth political issues such as the ones experienced after certain organisations requested unhindered access to conflict affected areas and displaced people’s camps, the Daily News quoted him as saying this week.

In mid-May, Walter Kälin, the UN Secretary-General’s Representative for the Human Rights of Displaced Persons called on Colombo to allow the UN and other agencies “full and unfettered access to all civilians and detainees.”

The call was repeated by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon himself when he visited the island in late May as Sri Lanka interned hundreds of thousands of Tamils in militarized, overcrowded tent camps.

The United States also pressed for unimpended access for humanitarian agencies.

The calls were flatly rejected by President Mahinda Rajapakse and government officials.

The president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Jakob Kellenberger, also called for access to the camps on 27 May, saying: “Needs [in the camps] are great, especially for medical care, and those needs are not being fully met.”

This week Sri Lanka ordered the ICRC to reduce its operation in Sri Lanka.

Mr. Samarasinghe said the order was extended to all aid agencies in Sri Lanka.

"We have not specifically targeted the ICRC. It is something we have told all international agencies," he told AFP.

"Since there is no more fighting now, we have told them and others that they should scale down their work.”

"We have told all foreign relief organisations that we will let them bring down expatriates only if they can't find people locally to do their job," he said.

"What we are looking for is to add value to what we are doing."


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