Monday, September 07, 2009

Unicef worker James Elder expelled from Sri Lanka

Rhys Blakely - The UN official who represents vulnerable children in the aftermath of Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war has been expelled for making adverse remarks, the Government said.

The move will h
eighten concerns that the refusal by President Rajapaksa to brook dissent is hindering the work of humanitarian groups, even though about 280,000 refugees from the former war zone being held in internment camps are in dire need of aid.

James Elder, the official spokesman for the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) in Sri Lanka was ordered to leave the country. His job involved speaking regularly to foreign media and describing the war and its effects on young people.

P. B. Abeykoon, controller of immigration and emigration, said that the Government revoked Mr Elder’s visa because of adverse remarks made to the media. Before the Government’s defeat in May of the Tamil Tiger rebels Mr Elder had spoken of the “unimaginable hell” suffered by children caught in the final stages of the war.

When civilians caught on the front line emerged after the conflict he said that children had “suffered horrendously and disproportionately”.

Mr Elder had also called on the Government to lift tight restrictions on access for humanitarian groups to about 280,000 mostly Tamil refugees, who fled their homes and are now being forcibly held in internment camps.

In June he told The Australian newspaper: “The nutritional situation of children [in the camps] is a huge concern for Unicef, and restrictions on access hinder our ability to save lives.”

The Government argued that it needs to impose strict security in the camps while it screens the refugees for Tamil fighters. Critics say said that the state is clinging on to the brutally oppressive mindset it adopted to crush the rebels, even though it has won.

Sarah Crowe, the regional chief of communications for Unicef, said: “James Elder has been Unicef’s voice advocating on behalf of those who do not have a voice — children and the most vulnerable.

“We strongly feel that he should continue to act as an impartial advocate on behalf of Sri Lanka’s most vulnerable women and children.”

Mr Elder declined to comment.

Other aid workers in Sri Lanka were also reluctant to speak. “I think lots of us expect to be asked to leave any day,” one said.

The Government recently announced new rules recently that prevent aid workers from staying in the country for more than three years and has refused visa extensions to scores of aid workers. Workers for several humanitarian groups, including Save the Children and Care International, have been forced to leave.

The Norwegian head of Forut, an Oslo-based NGO, was deported in June because she stopped staff from raising a Sri Lankan national flag in their office to celebrate the defeat of the Tigers. She said that Forut should remain neutral.

In July the International Committee of the Red Cross was forced to close two offices. One, in Batticaloa, had been providing protection services, which had involved following up allegations of abductions and extrajudicial killings, practices that human rights organisations say have become recurring motifs of the Sri Lankan Government.

The Government has said officials said that the visa rules were to encourage NGOs to recruit more local staff.

News of Mr Elder’s expulsion comes a week after a Sri Lankan journalist described by President Obama as an “emblematic example” of an unjustly persecuted news reporter, was sentenced to 20 years in prison under anti-terror laws.

The Sri Lankan Government accused J.S. Tissainayagam of taking money to spread Tiger propaganda in a case that the US Department of State said last year “appeared to be politically motivated”.

Separately, The Sri Lankan Foreign Minister, Rohitha Bogollagama, yesterday criticised foreign media outlets for reporting allegations that Sri Lankan soldiers had been caught on film executing Tamils during war .

He said that the video footage, which was aired on Channel 4, was “a deliberate and sinister attempt to cause embarrassment and bring disrepute to the Government of Sri Lanka”.

© Times Online

Related Links:
Sri Lanka expels UN official who criticised camps - Guardian
UN fights Sri Lanka expulsion order - Independent
Sri Lanka expels Unicef official - BBC News

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