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Myanmar monsoon threatens catastrophe for Rohingya

Rohingya Muslim
children gather at a camp for those displaced by violence, near Sittwe April
28, 2013. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
 Author: Emma
Batha
Reuters
AlertNet:
May 10, 2013
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – More than 125,000
Rohingya living in dire conditions after fleeing ethnic violence in western
Myanmar face a humanitarian catastrophe as the monsoon approaches, a rights
group has warned.
Death rates will rise in the coming months as rains swamp overcrowded
camps, increasing the risk of serious diseases including cholera, said Melanie
Teff, a senior advocate with Refugees International.
Teff, who has just returned from visiting the region, said Myanmar’s
government had run out of time to relocate people or build robust shelters
after repeatedly changing its plans.
“People are already dying because the appalling conditions they are living
in are making them ill, and this will be hugely exacerbated during the rainy
season,” Teff added.
“Water-borne diseases could have an enormous impact. There will be a
humanitarian catastrophe if people are not moved to higher ground.”
The rains – due in three weeks – will also make it harder for aid workers
to deliver water, food and other supplies to the camps in Rakhine state, Teff
said in an interview.
Some 140,000 people have been uprooted in the region following two
explosions of violence last year between Buddhist Rakhines and Muslim Rohingya
– described by rights groups as one of the most persecuted minorities in the
world.
Teff, who was accompanied on the trip by British MP Rushanara Ali, called
on the international community “to push for a clear plan for the rainy season
because lives are going to be lost”.
The United Nations says 69,000 people will be at very serious risk during
the monsoon season, which lasts until September. Most are living in flood-prone
camps near the shore or in former paddy fields.
Fears are particularly high for some 15,000 people living in makeshift
sites outside camps. They have no access to food aid, clean water or latrines
and have to defecate in the open.
“Many are living in straw huts or under pieces of tarpaulin. These people
are in a far worse situation than anyone I saw last year,” said Teff, whose
previous visit was in September.
Most of the displaced – 90-95 percent of them Rohingya – are living in
camps in Sittwe, Pauktaw and Myebon. Healthcare is minimal and malnutrition
rates are near emergency levels.
Teff, who will brief British government and U.N. officials following her trip,
said the Rohingya were desperate.
One widowed mother of six living in a camp at Pauktaw told her: “Our
relatives are dead. We are alive, but life is dead … Death is better than our
present life.”
An estimated 800,000 Rohingyas live in Myanmar, formerly called Burma, but
the government denies them citizenship, regarding them as illegal Bangladeshi
immigrants. Bangladesh does not recognise them as citizens either and they are
officially stateless.
AID BLOCKED
Teff said tensions were extremely high during her visit because officials
were trying to get the Rohingya to sign documents identifying them as Bengali.
“The Rohingya refused to sign. Stones were thrown. Shots were fired in the
air and we were told two children were hospitalised,” said Teff, who visited
the area two days after the April 26 confrontation.
“The community were very, very upset. They were saying, ‘We’re about to be
under water and they are coming round with forms asking us to sign that we are
Bengalis’. Why aren’t they focusing on the imminent humanitarian emergency.”
Unlike the displaced Rakhines, the Rohingya are not allowed to leave their
camps so they can no longer work and are reliant on aid.
But Teff said some Rakhine communities are blocking aid groups from helping
the Rohingya. The climate of fear is also making it hard for agencies to find
local staff to work for them.
The lack of healthcare is particularly serious. Teff said only one hospital
will treat Rohingya patients, the others have refused. The hospital has 12
segregated beds for the entire population.
She called on the World Health Organisation to urgently send a team to
Sittwe to coordinate healthcare and identify gaps.
Teff said Myanmar must come up with a plan to end the segregation between
the Rohingya and Rakhines, work towards reconciliation and extend citizenship
to the Rohingya.
Most Rohingya told Teff they would like to return to their homes if there
was protection.
One woman living in a makeshift site said: “If the government accepts us as
Rohingya we can go back, as then the government will give us security. If we go
back without security the Rakhines will kill us.”
But Teff strongly opposed a government proposal for boosting security by
expanding the NaSaKa border force, which she said had a terrible history of
abusing the Rohingya.
Teff also criticised the European Union for lifting sanctions on Myanmar
last month following a spate of democratic reforms in the former military
dictatorship.
“Removing any potential source of pressure is premature when the situation
has not been resolved for the Rohingya and has in fact gone backwards,” she
said.