Caritas Sri Lanka struggles to help displaced war refugees

Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Tamils remain in camps for internally displaced people in northern Sri Lanka. (CNS/Reuters)

An estimated 300,000 Sri Lankans remain displaced as war refugees nearly 10 months after the end of a vicious 25-year civil war between Tamil separatists and government forces, according to Father George Dhanasegaran Sigamony, national director of Caritas Sri Lanka.

Affiliated with Caritas Internationalis, the church’s worldwide relief and development agency, Caritas Sri Lanka is providing assistance while pushing the Sri Lankan government to let people return home from the northeastern corner of the country where the war ended.

Father Sigamony told Catholic News Service during a mid-March visit to U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services office that the challenges his agency faces are nearly as great as those confronting relief agencies in Haiti following the earthquake of Jan. 12.

“Unfortunately the supplies are limited,” he said, explaining that dire situation in the island nation off the southeast coast of India has gotten little notice in recent months as other pressing humanitarian disasters grab the world’s attention.

Compounding the situation is the fact that thousands of land mines remain buried throughout the war zone, posing grave danger to anyone moving through the countryside on foot.

The Sri Lankan government has been of little help because most of its attention is focused on the upcoming parliamentary election scheduled for April 8, leaving the Catholic Church and a few other remaining aid agencies to provide assistance, he said.

The Catholic Church has remained with the refugees since the final weeks of the war in June, Father Sigamony said. Many priests and sisters were left homeless by the war and remain in the camps ministering to people in a variety of ways.

Most of the aid Caritas provides comes in the form of food and bicycles, the primary form of transportation for people in villages and outlying areas. But with the need so great, Father Sigamony said the agency is barely able to help the thousands who desperately seeking to return home.

“We need the helping hands from the international community,” Father Sigamony said. “We appeal to all the generous hearts.”

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