UN warns Sri Lanka over prison camps

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The Independent Online

In its firmest warning yet to the government of Sri Lanka, the United Nations has said it cannot indefinitely continue funding the huge refugee camps in the north of the country. The world body urged the authorities to allow the hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians to leave.

In comments that appear to underline a hardening of attitude towards Sri Lanka, the senior UN official in the country said the camps should be a last resort for civilians with nowhere else to go.

Sri Lanka faces increasing international criticism over its treatment of the estimated 300,000 civilians held in camps, with the EU poised to cancel a trade concession worth $1bn to the government.

Four months after the government defeated Tamil rebels and ended a decades-long civil war, aid groups have complained that conditions in the vast Menik Farms camp, where most people remain behind razor-wire, are still inadequate.

"Nothing has changed over the past three months for the people in the camps," the UK-based Catholic Fund for Overseas Development said yesterday. "They are overcrowded, with poor sanitary conditions and inadequate health care. There are concerns about what may happen when the monsoon rains arrive in the next couple of months."

The UN's senior official in Sri Lanka, Neil Buhne, told the BBC: "The best solution is, obviously, that as many people leave as soon as possible; and, for the people who have no place else to go, that the site can become an open one." The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, has also said he intends to speak directly to the Sri Lankan President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, to protest against the decision to expel the spokesman for Unicef, accused by the government of acting as "propagandist" for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. He will also raise the issue of two UN workers in the Tamil-dominated north arrested in June.

One source in Colombo said: "I don't think [Mr Buhne] was throwing down the gauntlet at the government, but I think he was placing it down. There is a definite disappointment at the pace things are being done, and that promises have not been fulfilled."

After the war, Mr Rajapaksa said most civilians would be allowed home by the end of this year, but only a small number of elderly people, children and priests have left. Yesterday, a government spokesman said that about 10,000 civilians had gone home by bus.

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