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December 08, 2012

UN: Refugee Camps in Western Burma 'Shocking'

by Ron Corben

The United Nations humanitarian affairs chief says a Rohingya Muslim refugee camp in Burma for victims of recent inter-communal violence is "shockingly overcrowded."  Valerie Amos, head of humanitarian affairs for the United Nations, has called on the international community to press Burma to address issues of citizenship for the stateless Rohingya and move forward on reconciliation efforts within the community.
 
Amos speaking to reporters Saturday at the end of a four-day official visit to Burma, says conditions in camps housing victims of inter-communal violence are among the worst she has witnessed in terms of overcrowding and sanitation.
 
Amos travelled to eight camps in Western Rakhine State, where clashes and arson this year left almost 200 dead and around 115,000 displaced.  She says while conditions varied, the Myebon camp was "particularly shocking".
 
"The people are very crowded. Men, women, children are inside these tents that basically are for smaller numbers," said Amos.  "Sanitation is very, very poor indeed. Water for people; getting access to water, for bathing for cooking and so on is terrible. There is no school and the children cannot go to school anywhere else."
 
The U.N. humanitarian affairs chief said Burma (also known as Myanmar) faces several humanitarian challenges with 500,000 people displaced because of local conflicts.  Amos says the violence has left a deep fracture between Buddhist and Muslim communities.

While Amos welcomed political reforms under President Thein Sein, with whom she held talks, Amos also called on the government to address the U.N.'s concerns and offered U.N. assistance. The issue of citizenship for stateless Muslim Rohingya is highly sensitive in Burma. Many Buddhists claim the Rohingya are Bengali.
 
"Donors and countries need to continue to put pressure on the government of Myanmar to sort out the issue of citizenship and at the same time to begin the process of reconciliation," Amos added.

The U.N. says $27 million in aid has been received for the displaced in Rakhine state, but $41 million more is needed by June, 2013.
 
Amos also pointed to concerns over thousands of internally displaced people in eastern Burma's Kachin State. Some 75,000 people have been forced from their homes due to fighting between Kachin and the Burmese army. She said aid was badly needed to assist 40,000 people in areas where the U.N. has no access.  
 
The U.N.'s call for assistance and reform in Burma was welcomed by the rights group Alternative ASEAN Network. But the group warned the international community should ensure that the government in the capital, Naypyidaw, will adopt the U.N.'s recommendations.
 
"If Naypyidaw does not do anything or in fact start behaving in a more negative way then I think that's going to be a wakeup call for the rest of the international community - a high ranking U.N. Official has flown in, got the relevant briefings and now has a clear picture for the situation, which she has communicated in public," said Debbie Stothard, the Alternative ASEAN Network's spokesperson.
 
Rights groups say it is urgent for the international community to access the internally displaced, especially the Kachin who are facing the on-coming winter in northern Burma and need more than plastic sheeting for shelter.

U.N. Humanitarian chief Amos says the Rakhine community also feels it has been "left behind" in terms of development across Burma, pointing to an immediate need to address their grievances.