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Plight of Myanmar’s Rohingya like apartheid South Africa – British MP

A boy from a Rohingya internally displaced
persons (IDP) camp looks up as he huddles next to his mother while queuing for
food in a school, where they were evacuated to shelter from cyclone Mahasen
when it landed, outside of Sittwe, May 17, 2013. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

May 22, 2013
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Ethnic
Rohingya trapped in squalid camps in western Myanmar are living in conditions
that are “a cross between apartheid
South Africa and the West Bank”, a British
MP said following a trip to the region.
Some 140,000 people in Rakhine State were
uprooted after two rounds of violence last year between Buddhist Rakhines and
Muslim Rohingya – described by rights groups as one of the most persecuted
minorities in the world.
Refugee groups say 90-95 percent of the
displaced are Rohingya.
The two communities are now segregated. Unlike
the displaced Rakhines, the Rohingya are not allowed to leave their camps so
they can no longer work and are reliant on aid. Malnutrition rates are near
emergency levels.
“People were in a desperate situation and
they are just trying to survive,” said Shadow Development Minister
Rushanara Ali, who visited camps in Sittwe and Pauktaw at the end of April.
“It’s like being in prison. It is – and I
am not using this term lightly – like a cross between apartheid South Africa
and the West Bank,” she told a meeting at Britain’s House of Lords
attended by politicians, rights activists and aid workers.
Ali said people were dying because of a lack of
healthcare, dire sanitation and poor humanitarian access to the camps.
Ali said international agencies in Myanmar were
working in very difficult circumstances but she accused the World Health
Organisation of complacency and called on it to coordinate emergency help and
persuade Myanmar to improve access for doctors.
“By any standards they were among the
worst camps that the international agencies had come across, and yet they don’t
have the support that they need,” she told Tuesday’s briefing.
An estimated 800,000 Rohingya live in Myanmar,
formerly called Burma, but the government denies them citizenship, regarding
them as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants.
The Rohingya, who are officially stateless, say
they have lived for centuries in what is now Rakhine State.
Ali said it was crucial the international
community press Myanmar to grant citizenship to the Rohingya – which she said
was the key to reducing their vulnerability to human rights abuses.
The parliamentarian from the opposition Labour
party also warned of a real risk of tit-for-tat violence spreading outside
Myanmar. There are fears that extremists, angered by the violence against the
Muslim Rohingya, could launch reprisals in countries with Buddhist minorities,
she said.
Human Rights Watch has called for an
international investigation into the violence in Rakhine State which it says
amounts to crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.
Some of the most desperate people Ali saw were
living under shelters made of straw and bits of tarpaulin outside the camps.
Around 15,000 people are in these makeshift settlements and have no access to
But even in the official camps conditions are
abysmal. Health and sanitation levels are appalling and death rates are a lot
higher than they would normally be, Ali said.
“It’s clear that the fact that there is
limited access for humanitarian agencies into these camps is costing
lives,” she added.
At one camp in Pauktaw, people told her that 90
pregnant women had died. She also saw children swimming in water contaminated
with faeces.
Ali said access to healthcare was a massive
problem. No hospital will treat Rohingya patients except for one in Sittwe which
has set aside just 12 segregated beds.
She also described a clinic she had visited
with poorly trained nurses. Doctors from international agencies had offered
their expertise but the state government would not give them access.
Rights group Refugees International, which
accompanied Ali on the trip, is set to publish a report on the situation next
week in which it will urge Myanmar’s government to come up with a
reconciliation plan and end the segregation.
Ali said she was very struck that both communities
told her that relations were not bad before the violence flared.
“The Rohingya were very clear that it was
not their neighbours or people they knew who were instigating the violence. It
was external people coming in and causing the violence and burning villages
down and amplifying any tensions that did exist,” she added.
But Ali said there was now a high level of
distrust and fear of reprisals on both sides.
“The everyday interactions that had
existed – the business connections the trading relationships – all the things
that make a village or a town tick (were) totally annihilated,” she added.