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After cyclone, Myanmar camps face monsoon threat

Muslim Rohingya
women prepare their meal at a temporary relief camp on the outskirts of Sittwe,
on May 17, 2013 (AFP/File, Soe Than Win)

By Shwe Yinn Mar Oo
May 20, 2013

SITTWE, Myanmar —
Myanmar’s victims of sectarian strife were spared the full force of Cyclone
Mahasen, but many are now returning to flimsy tents in flood-prone camps with
the monsoon just weeks away.

Myanmar’s Rakhine
state is pockmarked with makeshift settlements for up to 140,000 people —
mainly Rohingya Muslims — displaced by sectarian unrest last year that claimed
about 200 lives and saw whole villages razed.

Many were evacuated
last week ahead of Cyclone Mahasen, which later veered into neighbouring
Bangladesh. But most have now returned, according to Kirsten Mildren of the
UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

“They are
actually no better off than where they were last week before the storm,”
she said, adding the cyclone was simply a “dress rehearsal” for the
rainy season — set to hit in a few weeks.

Many of the camps
consist of little more than ramshackle bivouacs of bamboo and tarpaulin flung
up in soggy paddy fields.

Sanitation is a key
concern. Rain last week left standing water in many of the camps and Mildren
said water-born diseases such as cholera were a particular fear.

“Thousands are
sheltering in areas that make them vulnerable and we need to find solutions to
this, ” she said. “If one week of rain has done this, imagine what
it’s going to be like in a couple of months.”

Many Rohingya are
completely reliant on humanitarian aid, with an almost total segregation of
Buddhist and Muslim communities.

A lack of adequate
food has also raised fears about malnutrition among children, many of whom have
gone without access to education for almost a year.

“It makes me
sad just to talk about our life here,” 55-year-old Hla Hla Myint told AFP,
describing conditions at the Mansi camp near the state capital Sittwe.

“Ants, leeches
and earthworms come into our tents. We are living in the water. I am so sad. We
have no food,” she said.

While the former
factory worker sought shelter from the cyclone with her two daughters in a
local school, her husband and son stayed behind to guard their tent — all they
had to protect them from the monsoon.

Myanmar views its
population of roughly 800,000 Rohingya as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants and
denies them citizenship — they are considered by the United Nations to be one
of the world’s most persecuted minorities.

Attacks against
Muslims — who make up an estimated four percent of the population — have
spread to other parts of Myanmar, overshadowing widely praised political
reforms as the country emerges from decades of military rule.

After months of
warnings from rights groups and aid organisations, local authorities are now
scrambling to build enough wooden shelters before the tents are swamped.

“I don’t think
we have much time left — just over a month. These houses have to be finished
in that time,” Rakhine government spokesman Win Myaing told AFP.

He said about 70
percent of the required shelters had been built, although he could not provide
exact figures.

The UN’s refugee
agency, UNHCR, which has previously warned of a “humanitarian catastrophe”,
said some 70,000 people most at risk from the monsoon would be housed in new
wooden blocks.

That is in addition
to shelters for 12,000 people already built by UNHCR along with an unknown
number constructed by the government, according to spokeswoman Vivian Tan.

The semi-permanence
of the wooden structures has caused concern that they will prolong segregation
of communities — a solution, albeit temporary, that was advocated by a recent
official report on the unrest.

Independent analyst
Richard Horsey said a “huge challenge” would be to provide aid
“without making these camps into permanent settlements”.

Tan said the aim
was to eventually return the displaced to their old communities.

“This cannot
go on for a long time. Solutions will need to be found in their own
villages,” she told AFP.

At Bawdupha camp
near Sittwe, more than 7,500 Rohingya have moved into 20 new barracks, each
comprising eight one-family rooms. A dozen more are being built, but residents
worry whether they would withstand a cyclone.

“The house is
a temporary construction, not strong. I am concerned if there is a storm, it
will be swept away,” said Muhibulah, 55, who has been living in the camp
with his wife and three children for almost a year.

Like many Rohingya
he has little faith in the authorities.

“We don’t
trust the government. Absolutely not,” he said.