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U.N. warns of disease risk in western Myanmar displacement camps

Rohingya people receive food aid from the World Food Program at Thae Chaung camp for internally displaced people in Sittwe, Rakhine state in western Myanmar. Picture April 24, 2014. (Photo: REUTERS/Minzayar)

By Thin Lei Win
May 22, 2014

BANGKOK -- Deteriorating living conditions and a looming rainy season are increasing the risk of waterborne diseases in the sprawling, squalid displacement camps in western Myanmar where tens of thousands of people live, the United Nations warned on Tuesday. 

An increasing number of water points and latrines in the camps in Rakhine State housing mainly stateless Rohingya Muslims are not working, the U.N. said in its latest report.

“Health problems are compounded by a general deterioration in the water, sanitation and hygiene situation in camps, increasing the risk of waterborne diseases,” it said. 

The United Nations said it was also concerned about the more than 23,000 people who have no secure access to safe water or hygiene items and are dependent on daily help from aid groups. 

Aid agencies resumed activities in Rakhine in late April after a four-week suspension following violent attacks by nationalist mobs in Sittwe, the state capital. The violence began after a rumour spread about the desecration of a Buddhist flag, but nationalists have long objected to the Rohingya receiving humanitarian aid. 

The attacks on March 26-27 caused extensive damage and forced the temporary relocation of more than 300 aid workers, cutting an important lifeline for the Rohingya, many of whom rely on aid agencies for their basic needs. 

Religious conflict across Myanmar, including two major incidents in Rakhine, has killed at least 240 people and displaced more than 140,000 since June 2012, most of them Rohingya, who Myanmar considers illegal immigrants and who, aid agencies say, have suffered from persistent persecution. 

The continuing violence has called into question the reformist credentials of Myanmar’s quasi-civilian government, which took over after half a century of military rule. It had won praise from Western powers after embarking on an ambitious reform programme. 


Aid groups may be back but “less than 50 percent” of the staff who left Sittwe after the March attacks had returned by the end of April, the United Nations said, mainly because of their inability to find suitable accommodation and offices. 

Nationalists have long told landlords not to let their houses to aid agencies, and aid workers say they face threats and intimidation.

Local authorities are refusing to allow back in two of the largest charities that provided healthcare in Rakhine state before the attacks - the Nobel-prize winning medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres Holland (MSF-H) and Malteser International. 

The government expelled MSF at the start of March after the charity said it had treated victims near the scene of an alleged massacre of stateless Rohingya Muslims in the north of Rakhine. The Myanmar government denies any killing took place.

A staffer from Malteser was accused of desecrating a Buddhist flag, prompting the March attacks, but was later exonerated by a government-appointed commission investigating the riots.

“Their continued suspension has had a huge impact in the health sector in particular, but also in other sectors such as water, sanitation and hygiene,” the United Nations said of the halting of the aid agencies’ work. 

The central government has been working to keep vital services going but they “fell far short of the services that were being provided prior to the attacks,” it added. 

Medical staff from aid agencies were doing about 18,000 consultations a month in displacement camps and villages until February, but the number dropped to about 6,000 in April, the report said. 

Emergency medical referrals for people in camps to the Sittwe General Hospital also dropped, from an average of 45 patients per month in the previous year to only 11 in April. 

“Displaced people in camps reported that a number of people died as a result of the lack of access to emergency medical assistance,” the United Nations said. 

“With severe movement restrictions in place for people in camps, timely medical referrals facilitated by INGOs are the only lifeline for many,” it added.

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