Oxfam has had to pay £550,000 in customs duty to the Sri Lankan government for importing 25 four-wheel-drive vehicles to help victims of the tsunami, The Daily Telegraph has learned.
The sum was levied by customs in Colombo which have refused to grant tax exemptions to non-governmental organisations working to repair damage caused by the giant Boxing Day wave.
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 £2,750 "demurrage" for every day they stood idle.
Oxfam said it had "no choice" but to pay the exorbitant 300 per cent 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, which donated £300 million for tsunami relief under the umbrella of the Disasters Relief Committee.
It 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.
An aid worker who asked to remain anonymous said yesterday: "When people watched those scenes of destruction and suffering on television they were moved to help the victims - not fill the government's coffers."
© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2005.