- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 18, 2005

NEW DELHI — The British relief agency Oxfam has had to pay $1 million in customs duty to the Sri Lankan government for importing 25 four-wheel-drive vehicles to help victims of December’s tsunami.

The sum was levied by customs in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo, which has refused to grant tax exemptions to nongovernmental organizations working to repair damage caused by the Dec. 26 disaster.

The Indian-made Mahindra vehicles, essential to negotiate damaged roads and rough tracks, remained stuck in port at Colombo for almost a month as officials completed the small mountain of paperwork required to release them. Customs charged $5,000 “demurrage” for every day they stood idle.

Oxfam said it had “no choice” but to pay the 300 percent import tax or face further delays to its relief operation.

Sources said that when Oxfam officials tried to reason with the government, the Ministry of Finance offered three options: pay the duty, re-export the vehicles or hand them over to a ministry of their choice.

Oxfam was one of the major charities to benefit from the generosity of the British public who donated $548 million for tsunami relief under the umbrella of the Disasters Relief Committee.

Oxfam refused to comment on whether the customs payment was a fair use of donations. It said only that it “abides by the law” of the countries in which it operates, “including the tax laws.”

Anger is growing in Sri Lanka among aid workers and residents who say that reconstruction is being slowed to a crawl by bureaucracy, corruption, greed and inefficiency.

“When people watched those scenes of destruction and suffering on television they were moved to help the victims — not fill the government’s coffers,” an aid worker who asked to remain anonymous said Thursday.

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