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UN: Food Shortages, Poverty Forcing Rohingya to Flee Burma

  • Ron Corben

The United Nation's World Food Program says food insecurity and malnutrition faced by Burma's Muslim Rohingya people, remains a key reason for thousands of Rohingya fleeing the region each year. The WFP is calling on Burma's military government to ease transport restrictions in the country to improve overall food security.

The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) blames poverty and chronic food shortages as a key factor behind the ongoing exodus of Burma's ethnic Muslim minority, Rohingya, despite more than a decade of international assistance to the region.

The Rohingya people, largely live in Burma's northern Rakhine State, the most western region of the country bordering on Bangladesh. Most have been denied citizenship. The WFP has been providing food relief to the Rohingya Rakhine state since 1994.

Paul Risley, WFP's regional communications advisor, says the levels of food shortages and malnutrition is adding to a sense of desperation among the Rohingya community.

"Poverty is still the greatest challenge," he said. "The people in Rakhine State are often found to be without food between harvests. There is a growing sense of desperation that's measured by the very high malnutrition rates we found in the recent assessment."

Recent WFP briefing papers say one third of Burma's children under five are underweight, with over 100,000 of them dying each year.

Currently the WFP plans to provide some 1.6 million people across northern Rakhine state, Shan state and the Magway Division - covering Chin and Kachin states - with food assistance.

The WFP is already providing food relief for over one million people in the Irrawaddy Delta region devastated by cyclone Nargis in May last year. The cyclone claimed thousands of lives.

Risley called on Burma's authorities to ease restrictions on the movement of goods and food from elsewhere in the country where the WFP and other non-government organizations are currently operating.

"Simple markets, that allow food grown in one area to be sold in areas where food is not present; that is the greatest factor that is holding back proper food security and an end to high malnutrition rates for people in Burma today," he said.

The WFP also said that other restrictions placed on the Muslim population were adversely affecting livelihoods, leaving them "vulnerable."

The Rohingya plight has been highlighted over recent months as hundreds of the Muslim minority have fled Burma and Bangladesh by boat in the hope of finding work in Southeast Asia, in particular Malaysia.

Hundreds in the boats have washed up along the shoreline of Thailand and Indonesia triggering widespread debate and accusations of law enforcement and military abuses in forcing boatloads of the refugees back into open waters.

Thailand, preparing to host the regional summit of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) this month, is calling on regional governments to look to solutions to the problems of the Rohingya in the run up to the meeting.

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