The UN refugee agency is calling for urgent action and increased financial support to improve conditions for displaced people in Myanmar's Rakhine state and to avert a humanitarian catastrophe as seasonal rains start.
"UNHCR is seriously concerned about the risks facing over 60,000 displaced people in flood-prone areas and in makeshift shelters," a spokesperson said. From May to September, the monsoon season is expected to unleash heavy rains and possible cyclones in Rakhine state, where more than 115,000 people remain uprooted after last year's inter-communal violence.
The most critical sites are in Sittwe, Pauktaw and Myebon, where the displaced are living near the coast and are vulnerable to tidal surges. Some have camped in paddy fields or low-lying areas that will flood once the rains start. "
Flooding will exacerbate the already fragile conditions of shelter and sanitation, and increase the risk of water-borne diseases. In addition, several thousand people are still living in tents and flimsy makeshift shelters made of tarpaulin, rice bags and grass that cannot withstand even moderate rains.
The UN refugee agency and its partners have urged the Myanmar government to address shelter needs as a matter of priority. Adequate land should be identified promptly and challenges related to water and sanitation facilities suitably addressed.
"UNHCR welcomes the progress made so far in identifying suitable land to temporarily relocate groups of displaced people," the spokesperson said. At the request of the government, UNHCR has committed to build temporary shelters for some 24,000 displaced people in Myebon and Pauktaw, while the authorities will provide accommodation to those displaced in Sittwe's rural areas.
Since the displacement started in Rakhine state last June, UNHCR has constructed temporary shelters in the form of bamboo-framed longhouses for 14,400 displaced people. It has also built permanent homes for nearly 500 people who have returned to their areas of origin, and distributed tents to house 28,000 people. "Additional funding is urgently needed to allow UNHCR to meet its commitments within the very short time period left before the rains," the spokesperson stressed.
A recent high-level UNHCR delegation to Myanmar stressed the need for reconciliation between communities and other tangible actions to improve security in Rakhine state so that the displaced can enjoy their rights, including freedom of movement and access to services and means of livelihood. UNHCR raised concerns about the risks of protracted displacement, separation of communities and onward secondary movements.
Since June last year, an estimated 27,800 people – the majority of them believed to be from Rakhine state – have left on boats from points on the Bay of Bengal. Hundreds are believed to have drowned en route and many more have landed in countries like Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.
The authorities in Myanmar have reaffirmed their commitment to work towards long-term solutions for the displaced. UNHCR has called on countries in the region to keep their borders open to people in need of international protection and to offer them temporary assistance and protection until durable solutions can be found.
In parallel, the agency continues to press for root causes of the outflow to be addressed by promoting peaceful co-existence and economic development in Rakhine state, pursuing practical measures to ensure basic rights for everyone there, and eventually granting access to citizenship to those individuals who are currently stateless.
Photo by © UNHCR/P.Behan
Women's shelters are usually well-kept secrets, tucked away in confidential locations to protect the identity of victims of abuse and other forms of exploitation.
But one shelter in southern Thailand's Songkhla province has been thrust into the spotlight after regular visits by the media and the international community. Everyone wants to meet its new residents, a group of 105 women and children from Myanmar's Rakhine state. They are among the some 1,700 recent boat arrivals the Royal Thai Government has allowed to stay in Thailand until solutions can be found for them.
Amina*, a 30-year-old mother of four from Maungdaw in northern Rakhine state, is grateful for the temporary respite. She said life back home became unbearable after last year's inter-communal violence. Surrounded by nine Rakhine villages, her Muslim-minority village felt constantly under siege.
"They came with knives and other weapons," she said. "We managed to protect ourselves for two months. But one day we saw them coming with fire, that's when we decided to leave."
Armed with a few bags of clothes, Amina walked southwards with her children, aged five to 13 years, stopping in Muslim villages for refuge along the way. Eventually her uncle called and told her about a boat leaving for Malaysia, where her husband is working. The family made their way to the departure point, paid 200,000 kyat (about US$234) and found themselves in an overcrowded boat with about 200 people.
"We brought some dried rice but finished it after three days. There was drinking water but we were very hungry," said Amina. "We were at sea for 12 days, the children sitting on my lap. As we approached Thailand, it rained and the water was very rough. We were so afraid."
The ordeal did not end when they landed in Thailand. According to Amina, the group was taken by unidentified men first to a forest location, then to a house where they stayed until it was raided by the police in mid-January. After spending two days in prison, Amina and her children were taken to the shelter in Songkhla.
Since the group's arrival, the shelter has been overwhelmed by an outpouring of assistance from the local authorities, organizations and communities. Donations include food, clothing, footwear, toiletries, detergent and sanitary materials. One package came from Chiang Rai in northern Thailand, some 1,500 km away.
"In the beginning, the donations were just piling up. We had to mobilize many workers to sort them," said a woman who works at the shelter. Today, big sacks of rice, boxes of instant noodles, tins of biscuits and other supplies are neatly stored in three rooms at the shelter.
Those requiring medical attention after the long voyage and subsequent detention have been taken to the local hospital. The children have been vaccinated against common diseases.
Students from nearby universities still bring cooked food every day, though the women have started cooking for themselves with the 1 kilogramme of salt and 5 kilogrammes of fresh chillies provided daily by the shelter staff on request. The students have also organized recreational activities such as arts and crafts, singing and dancing.
Their Thai hosts are going out of their way to ensure the women and children feel at home, but language and cultural differences are making it hard for them to fully adjust to life in the shelter. Local staff are also struggling to cope with the large group and have asked for reinforcements.
Asked how she was coping, Amina said, "The people are very nice and caring here. I can sleep with no problem. But my husband is in Malaysia and I want to join him there."
Since late January, staff from the UN refugee agency have been talking to women and children in seven shelters across Thailand's south, as well as men in immigration detention centres, to get a clearer profile of their humanitarian and protection needs.
*Name changed for protection reasons
By Vivian Tan, in Songkhla, southern Thailand
UNHCR's assistance is impartial and based on needs, regardless of one's background.
Humanitarian access is improving for all the affected areas in Rakhine state. UNHCR is permitted by the authorities to travel to all the affected areas. There are logistical problems; some areas are only reachable by boat but we are able to send our teams out for assessments and distribution.
To distribute aid, UNHCR travels to affected areas to assess IDPs' needs by asking them questions and observing the situation for ourselves. We compile lists of who needs what where in what quantities, and try our best to allocate relief items based on what we have on hand and what's available from UNHCR's global supply stockpiles.
UNHCR is also working with other UN agencies and INGOs to support the Myanmar government in this emergency response. We are the lead agency for protection, shelter, non-food items, camp coordination and camp management.
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