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UNICEF opens transit centre for child soldiers freed by LTTE

COLUMBO/GENEVA, 3 October 2003 - The first of three transit centres for child soldiers released from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was opened today in a ceremony attended by senior LTTE figures, high-level officials of the Government of Sri Lanka, Save the Children and UNICEF.  The ceremony marks the first stage of a complex programme aimed at releasing children from the LTTE and bringing them back to their families, implemented under the Action Plan approved by the Government and LTTE in August 2003. Forty-nine former child soldiers (27 girls and 22 boys) have been placed in the transit centre in Kilinochchi in the severely war-affected north east of the island. Two other centres, in Batticaloa and Trincomalee, will be opened in the coming months.

“This is a big day for the children who have been amongst the people at most risk during the conflict,” said UNICEF Representative Ted Chaiban in Sri Lanka. “But there are still cases of recruitment and it has to be understood that if the reintegration of child soldiers is to be successful, then new recruitment of children has to stop. With the implementation of the Action Plan, we need to see an end to child soldiers in Sri Lanka.”

The transit centres are intended to be a collection point in the first instance where the needs of children can be assessed in a non-military environment before they are returned to their families. Speaking at the opening, Mr. Chaiban stated that the maximum period a child can stay in the centre is three months. “However, it is expected most children will be returned to their families within a shorter period.” The centres are one component of an action plan for war-affected children in the north and east of Sri Lanka. The LTTE and the Government of Sri Lanka, during the fifth round of peace talks in Berlin in February, requested UNICEF to play a substantial role in establishing shared programmes to address the needs of up to 50,000 children affected by war.

The transit centres are a key stage in the process to release children in the LTTE, agreed as part of the Action Plan. The centres will be jointly managed by UNICEF and the Tamils Rehabilitation Organisation. UNICEF staff will be present in all the centres on a 24-hour basis for the duration of the project. “We know from experience in many other conflicts that a lot of the children will emerge from the ranks with many difficult issues, both emotional and physical,” said Dr. Sadig Rasheed, UNICEF’s Regional Director for South Asia, who was present at the opening.

He added, “This is the place where we can start to remove the soldiers and try to restore their childhood. But the real rehabilitation can only take place in the context of a family and a real home. It is important to get the children into the family environment as soon as we have an understanding of their future needs and their family circumstances. In the meantime, these centres will be secure places where the children will be able to meet their parents, prepare for their return home and receive medical treatment as needed.”

After the children leave the transit centre and return to their families, their progress is followed up by Save the Children social workers. This is when the real work begins. With the support of the Government of Sri Lanka, children will be given classes to help them catch up on missed schooling, and access to psychosocial and health care. The Save the Children social workers will ensure that the children and their families have access to vocational training with the support of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and microcredit facilities with the support of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

For the past 30 years, UNICEF has been working closely with the Government, NGOs, civil society and non-state actors in Sri Lanka, to bring about a positive change and improve conditions for the most vulnerable children and women in the country. UNICEF support includes ensuring every child gets the best start in life through immunisation and other services, that every child has access to quality schooling and all children are protected from abuse. UNICEF also responds to emergencies such as the floods in the south. UNICEF will continue to work so that every child is given the opportunity to develop to his or her maximum potential.

For more information, please contact:

Sarah Epstein, UNICEF
Tel: 01-2555270 Ext. 244, or 0777416739

Gordon Weiss, UNICEF
Tel: 1-212-326-7426, gweiss@unicef.org




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