Recognition of ethnic minority would help solve root cause of the migrant crisis in Southeast Asia, US officials say.
Sittwe, Myanmar – Amid the mud and drizzle, Khin Maung Myint surveyed the scene from his single-room bamboo hut. With floodwaters reaching knee height in places, he worried about the damage inflicted on his ramshackle home by monsoonal storms.
The father-of-six, who also goes by the religious name Elias, lives in the Dar Paing camp for internally displaced persons (IDP) in western Myanmar with his wife and children. He is 36, but his dire circumstances have aged him beyond his years.
“With young children living in this one room, it’s not a good situation,” he said through an interpreter. “Sleeping is very difficult as there is not enough room for eight family members.”
Severe weather across Myanmar has affected more than 1.6 million people and killed at least 117 in the past two months, according to the United Nations.
Storms, floods and landslides have displaced nearly 400,000 households in many parts of the country.
Among those affected are members of the Rohingya minority in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state, who were forced from their homes by anti-Muslim violence in 2012.
About 140,000 Rohingya currently live in IDP camps around the state capital, Sittwe.
‘Not safe for kids’
Residents live in tents or, like Elias, in cramped bamboo huts with tin or tarpaulin roofs. In recent weeks, they have been battling torrential rainstorms that have left about 40 families homeless.
Five large shelters were destroyed by the storms, residents said last week, forcing people to move to other camps or take shelter in temporary school buildings.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has provided blankets, mats, tarpaulins and other items to affected camp residents, while the Myanmar government and the World Food Programme (WFP) have provided food aid to flood victims.
Residents receive regular rations of rice, beans, salt and oil from the WFP, which are supplemented with fruit, vegetables and fish from the Bay of Bengal just a few kilometres away.
“Water, sanitation and hygiene needs were provided, and mobile health clinics visited the camps distributing oral rehydration,” Orla Fagan, spokeswoman for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said on Tuesday.
“Shelters in camps for displaced people are deteriorating after three years and need to be repaired or reconstructed after the floods,” said Fagan.
No trained doctors work at the Dar Paing camp, which is home to some 7,000 people. Pharmacist Mohammed Tayub, 36, does his best to treat illnesses with his meagre supply of medicines.
He usually sees about 50 patients a week, but he said this number has increased substantially in recent weeks. Most are children, many of whom suffer from diarrhoea, vomiting, coughs and fevers.
“Living in this situation is not safe for the kids,” he said. “There are too many people living together so diseases spread easily.”
The Rohingya, who practice a form of Sunni Islam, have been described by human rights groups as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.
About one million Rohingya live in Myanmar, but the government refuses to recognise them as citizens, saying they are illegal migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.
Since 1982, they have been classified as non-nationals, effectively rendering them stateless, and are denied basic human rights.
Simmering historical tensions with Rakhine’s Buddhist majority boiled over in 2012, when Sittwe and other parts of the state saw deadly communal violence and rioting.
Homes and businesses were set alight and about 200 Rohingya were burned, shot, beaten, or hacked to death by rampaging Buddhist mobs.
Most of Sittwe’s Rohingya residents fled the city, although some 4,000 remain in the Aung Mingalar neighbourhood, which has become a sealed ghetto.
The authorities say they are not allowed to leave for their own safety, but Rohingya activists allege the government is trying to force them out of the country.
Many Rohingya have fled by sea, aiming to reach Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia. The UNHCR said about 25,000 left in the first three months of this year alone, when the “boat people” humanitarian crisis made headlines around the world.
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Hundreds died at sea, and others fell prey to human-trafficking gangs and were kept in camps along the Thai-Malaysia border, where mass graves were discovered earlier this year.
Other Rohingya live in villages in northern Arakan state, where they make a living as rice farmers, fishermen, or small tradesmen.
Chris Lewa from The Arakan Project, an NGO that supports the Rohingya, said little or no assistance has been given to villagers from either the government or international agencies.
“Relief assistance should urgently be provided to the most needy and affected in a non-discriminatory manner,” said Lewa, who is based in Bangkok.
“Longer term recovery assistance is also needed as paddy fields have been flooded and the harvest will be poor. With an already restricted access to means of livelihood, the recent floods will worsen the already dire humanitarian situation of the Rohingya.”