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Aid workers forced to leave Sri Lanka under strict new visa rules

[Times Online UK, Wednesday, 3 June 2009 07:26 No Comment]

Jeremy Page, South Asia Correspondent

Sri Lanka is hampering international relief efforts by forcing dozens of British and other foreign aid workers to leave the country because it considers them sympathetic to the defeated Tamil Tigers, The Times has learnt.

Aid organisations say that the policy is costing them tens of thousands of pounds of donors’ money as they struggle to help 280,000 Tamil civilians in internment camps.

“The NGOs are all extremely scared. If you raise your voice you’ll be the next one thrown out,” a senior member of staff in one international aid group said.

The Government deported the Norwegian head of Forut, an Oslo-based NGO, on Saturday, and stopped a British employee of Forut from re-entering Sri Lanka last month.

It has also refused to renew visas for dozens of other foreign aid workers, citing new rules that prevent them from staying in Sri Lanka for more than three years.

Two foreigners working for Care International, including a Briton, were forced to leave last month because their visas were not extended, local sources told The Times.

A Briton working for the Norwegian Refugee Council, an Ethiopian working for the Save the Children Fund, and three foreign members of staff for ASB, a German NGO, have been forced to leave.

The British head of Solidar, a consortium of NGOs, was ordered to leave within seven days in December even though he had four children at school in Sri Lanka. He managed to negotiate a short extension.

The programme manager of Zoa Refugee Care, a Dutch NGO, was expelled from Sri Lanka in September and there are problems gaining visa extensions for five of the NGO’s foreign staff.

Among those who are likely to be forced to leave in the next few months are the country heads of Oxfam and the Danish Refugee Council.

“By September or October, 60 to 70 per cent of NGO heads will have left the country,” said one aid worker.

The Government said that it was simply enforcing the new visa rules, which were announced last year. Aid workers were granted one-year visas previously, which they could renew as often as they wanted.

The new rules are designed to weed out Tiger sympathisers, according to Sri Lankan officials. The head of Forut was deported 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.

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

“We need to build our own capacity,” Rajiva Wijesinha, the Secretary of the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, told the UN Human Rights Council last week. “We want NGOs who bring aid . . . but we also don’t want people sitting around begging for the crumbs from the rich man’s table.”

Aid workers said that the rules were being used to purge foreign critics and to limit the ability of NGOs to operate and lobby the Government. “The idea is to get rid of people with institutional and operational experience,” said one.

Another said: “It’s easier for the Government if NGO people don’t have the contacts, connections and experience.” [Full Coverage]

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