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UN agency cuts food aid to Rakhine IDP camps

By Emanuel Stoakes, Frontier

A World Food Programme decision to cut food aid to some IDP camps in Rakhine has been condemned by other UN agencies, NGOs and rights advocates.

THE WORLD Food Programme has cut food aid to internally displaced persons in Rakhine State, the United Nations agency has confirmed to Frontier, while multiple NGO sources say it is considering further reductions in support to some communities.

The cuts have been criticised by members of the state’s Muslim community, while UN agencies and International NGOs have privately expressed concerns about the moves in documents seen by Frontier.

About 120,000 people, most of whom identify as Rohingya, remain in IDP camps since long-simmering communal tensions erupted into violence in 2012. They are dependent on aid for their survival.

The cuts, which were reported by sources in the Muslim community and subsequently confirmed by WFP in an email to Frontier, will affect 22,000 people in what is known as “zone one” – an area that covers Kyauktaw, Minbya and Mrauk-U Townships – who are no longer regarded as IDPs.

The reduction in aid appears to be part of a “phase-out“ plan outlined by the agency in a document circulated among humanitarian aid groups earlier this year.

The proposed plan, seen by Frontier, envisages a move to “scale down WFP relief assistance and to support the transition to recovery in [parts of] Rakhine State … from March to December 2016”.

A makeshift food stall at an IDP camp in Sittwe. (Maro Verli / Frontier)

A makeshift food stall at an IDP camp in Sittwe. (Maro Verli / Frontier)

The document says the downsizing effort involves cuts in assistance to large numbers of recipients in zone one. WFP confirmed by email that parts of the plan had been implemented, saying that 22,000 IDPs in zone one had been “returned to their original villages or nearby areas” because of a state government rehousing program and as a result would no longer receive food rations.

However, the agency said half of the group had been identified as being vulnerable and in need of continued assistance and would receive rations until the harvest season at the end of the year. “All pregnant and breastfeeding women and children under five continue to receive nutritional support,” WFP told Frontier.

Humanitarian principles

The phase-out strategy and the cuts it proposes have generated controversy within the humanitarian community in Myanmar. When the WFP document was circulated among NGOs in June, many criticised the move and questioned if the UN agency was acting according to humanitarian principles which stipulate that need alone, and not factors such as IDP status, should determine access to food aid.

The cuts in zone one were also criticised by a NGO source with knowledge of the situation in an email to Frontier.

“I have not seen a comprehensive analysis or research that would support the idea that the beneficiaries in zone one have the coping mechanisms, livelihoods [or] market access in place to manage a transition away from food assistance/reductions of rations,” the source, who is close to events, wrote.

The concerns were echoed in a paper, seen by Frontier, which was endorsed by the United Nations Children’s Fund and three NGOs operating in Rakhine: Action Contre La Faim, Save the Children and Myanmar Health Assistance Association.

A family at a makeshift home at a Muslim IDP camp in Sittwe. (Maro Verli / Frontier)

A family at a makeshift home at a Muslim IDP camp in Sittwe. (Maro Verli / Frontier)

The paper recommended changes to the WFP’s phase-out strategy and warned that ending food rations could have serious long-term consequences for the communities in zone one, most of which have little immediate means of achieving self-sufficiency.

It noted that there “seem to be few alternative coping mechanisms available to the affected populations as restrictions of movement still apply … therefore reduction/end of food-distributions for previous IDPs … could have a significantly negative impact on the overall nutritional status of the population”.

Echoing the concerns of colleagues, another NGO source asked: “How does shelter affect your food insecurity?”

In an email to Frontier, WFP said that as a humanitarian organisation it provided assistance based on need, but did not elaborate. WFP did not respond to questions from Frontier about the critical feedback it received from NGOs.

NGO criticisms

Further criticisms were detailed in a report co-authored by the Danish Refugee Council and the International Rescue Committee with input from other humanitarian groups that was reportedly discussed by a working group of NGOs active in Rakhine.

The report, also seen by Frontier, requests that WFP delay its planned cuts by six months until it can produce research to justify its decision, including a food security and vulnerability assessment.

Sources in Rakhine said WFP had conducted some consultations with affected communities as well as other assessments, but they fell short of the measures requested in the report.

Asked if it had carried out food and security assessments, WFP said it had conducted focus group discussions in the affected communities, adding that “at village assembly meetings, village members selected the most vulnerable households based on the outlined and agreed selection criteria”.

NGO sources told Frontier that such moves were welcome but did not go far enough. They raised particular concern about the focus group meetings, describing them as inadequate.

They added that their understanding from Muslims who attended these meetings and other consultations was that IDPs had identified vulnerable households which they believed should be protected from ration cuts, but the WFP had pushed for a lower number of households, for reasons that were not clear.

“In some cases, there were [IDP] requests for a number of households to be protected [from food ration cuts] which were effectively denied, with WFP saying that they had to choose a lower number; I have no idea what was the thinking behind this and it is concerning, frankly,” an NGO source told Frontier.

Maro Verli / Frontier

Maro Verli / Frontier

Other concerns were raised in an email dated June 22 and authored by a senior UN official that was sent to Ms Janet Jackson, the acting resident coordinator of the UN Development Program at the time.

The email, seen by Frontier, outlined concerns held by three key UN agencies – UNICEF, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and the United High Commissioner for Refugees – at the WFP’s proposal to end food support in zone one, and asked for the cuts to be postponed while further vulnerability assessments were conducted.

The email said the author’s UN colleagues were “worried about the decision by WFP to end food aid in parts of zone one on June 30 and an apparent lack of consultation with affected beneficiaries”. It added that the decision, “as understood here in Sittwe, could potentially have negative impacts on some of the most vulnerable groups in Rakhine State should the proposed strategy go ahead”.

NGO sources with knowledge of the situation say the postponement lasted one month.

Future cuts likely

The food aid cuts in zone one are likely to be followed by further reductions as a result of a “beneficiary review exercise” also outlined in the WFP’s phase-out strategy. The plan states that the review would be undertaken by WFP partner organisations via a “house-to-house survey”, in which households would “be asked to provide the household name, number of family members by age group, shelter number and village of origin” of residents.

The document further says that those “whose names are not included in the new list but continue to stay in the camp, will be provided with a gradual phase-out package up to end-December 2016″.

WFP did not directly answer questions about the exercise when asked by Frontier, but NGOs said it was likely to go ahead.

“They are planning to reconstitute the list; this doesn’t necessarily mean cuts, but it’s likely they will push for it,” an NGO source said, adding that the NGO community regarded any prospective cuts as being unjustified for humanitarian reasons.

“In Sittwe, they are planning to do a list reconstitution; they’re presenting the idea next month,” another NGO source said.

“WFP are under the impression that lots of people have left the Sittwe camps. The methodology for reconstitution has not yet been shared,” another source told Frontier.

The phase-out document indicates that the list review is part of a process intended to halt aid to IDPs regarded as manipulating the system. “The original beneficiary list was based on the names of households initially provided by the government [General] Administration Department,” the WFP strategy document said, adding that “[d]epartures from the camps were not reported and in some cases, were substituted with non-IDP names as a ploy of getting into the food list”.

These sentiments echo statements made by WFP’s partnerships officer Mr Arsen Sahakyan to Frontier in July. At that time he described unregistered persons as “economic IDPs” who had lost their jobs and “sold all their possessions and moved to camps in pursuit of humanitarian assistance”.

Maro Verli / Frontier

Maro Verli / Frontier

Rights advocates have criticised the plans to reduce beneficiary lists.

“Ration cuts would be justified if alternative sources of food were fully accessible, but that’s not the case,” said Mr Matthew Smith, the executive director of NGO Fortify Rights.

“On the issue of status, ie IDP or not, this has been a problem for years. We’ve seen entire displaced communities denied food aid because the authorities determined they weren’t genuinely displaced, which was nonsense,” Smith said, adding, “The UN response should be based on need, not on an arbitrary status.”

Mr Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, was more outspoken, describing the food aid cuts as “unconscionable”.

“Adequate food aid is one of the few things keeping these Rohingya alive, since they still cannot move out of the camps to earn a livelihood, so it’s unconscionable that WFP is making these drastic cuts,” he said.

Chris Lewa of The Arakan Project, an NGO that monitors events in Rakhine state, expressed concerns about the effect the cuts would have on women in particular. Lewa told Frontier that while conducting research for a report on the difficulties faced by Muslim women in Rakhine State. “[I] heard again and again that the single biggest issue was access to food; [the women I spoke to] felt that even the rations they had then were not enough,” she said. “These cuts are only going to make this worse.”

The beneficiary list review outlined in the “phase-out” strategy also came in for strong criticism in the joint response document authored by the Danish Refugee Council and the International Rescue Committee. It raised concern that assumptions about lists being inflated by the inclusion of non-IDPs may hide a more complicated situation.

Responding to the comment in the strategy about unreported camp departures, the document said this perception failed to “address the fact that IDPs have moved to other camps for different reasons (security, discrimination, lack of assistance, etc) and they are not on food lists and they should [be] included.” The document added that the strategy “cannot solely address something that the organisation considers as a ‘plot to get into the food list’ and not consider, for example, the inclusion of children born during displacement”.

But funding could also be a factor. In its operational report for August, WFP revealed that it was facing a significant shortfall. “WFP urgently requires US$11 million to avoid the food pipeline break in the coming months and to meet immediate food assistance needs through 2016,” the report said.

Sources in the Muslim community in Rakhine State told Frontier that they were worried about the impact of cuts in zone one and prospective aid list reductions in Sittwe.

“They are trying to cut in Sittwe indirectly … they are providing food checking each one in the list. If someone is missed in the list, they already cut him from the list,” said a Muslim leader named Muhammad, who identifies as Rohingya, a term the previous government refused to recognise. (The current government now prefers “Muslim community in Rakhine State”, describing the terms Rohingya and Bengali as “emotive” and politically charged.)

Muhammad said it had been rumoured that the beneficiary list review may involve the use of new methods of identification to avoid fraudulent claims. “I heard that each family on the list will be [identified by] pictures,” he said.

Asked how he thought the possible cuts would impact his community, Muhammad’s assessment was bleak. “I don’t think they will … survive without aid. Lots of children may [suffer from] malnutrition,” he said.

WFP told Frontier it is continuing to monitor the situation and plans to provide some additional support for former IDPs. “In addition to the targeted assistance to the most vulnerable and the nutrition support, WFP is planning projects to create community assets that contribute to food security while providing short-term employment opportunities,” it said in an email.

“In collaboration with partners, WFP will continue to monitor the food security situation of those who have returned or relocated to ensure that the needs of vulnerable households are met,” the UN agency added.

Top photo: Maro Verli / Frontier