OVERVIEW OF THE SITUATION
Myanmar’s democratically-elected government entered office at the end of March 2016 with a huge popular mandate and enormous international optimism. The government continues the process of political and economic reforms, while at the same time facing major challenges. In the northern part of Rakhine, attacks on police posts in October 2016 and subsequent security operations saw 87,000 people displaced into Bangladesh by July 2017. On 24 August 2017, the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, released its final report, ‘Towards a Peaceful, Fair and Prosperous Future for the People of Rakhine’. The day after, on 25 August, the situation in northern Rakhine deteriorated dramatically when armed attacks on police posts and subsequent security operations resulted in a mass exodus of people from their homes and hundreds of villages being burned to the ground. According to figures provided by the United Nations in Bangladesh, more than 600,000 refugees – most of them Muslims who self identify as ‘Rohingya’ – arrived in Bangladesh since August, with the majority crossing the border in September and October.
Over 25,000 Rakhine Buddhists and people from ethnic minority groups were also displaced, but most of these people had returned by November 2017, apart from about 2,000 people who have not yet been able to return to their place of origin. In Kachin and Shan states, armed conflict has continued and an estimated 106,000 displaced people remain in camps. Meanwhile, the entire country remains highly prone to natural disasters. During the monsoon season from July to September 2017, more than 300,000 people were temporarily displaced due to floods throughout the country.
The humanitarian situation in Myanmar is characterized by a complex combination of vulnerability to natural disasters, food and nutrition insecurity, armed conflict, inter-communal tensions, statelessness, displacement, trafficking and risky migration. The situation is compounded by chronic poverty and underlying structural inequalities and discrimination, including on the basis of gender, disability, ethnicity and religion, which exacerbates needs and vulnerabilities of affected people in many parts of the country.
According to the World Bank, significant gender disparities persist across the country. Myanmar is ranked 85 out of 187 on the Gender Inequality Index, with only half of women in the workforce, compared to 85 per cent of men. The challenges faced by women are particularly pronounced in remote and conflict-affected areas, where women and girls are exposed to various forms of gender-based violence, trafficking and discrimination, including customary laws that inhibit land tenure, property ownership and inheritance. The Demographic Health Survey (2015 – 2016) findings indicate a high level of gender inequality as demonstrated by the 51 per cent of women aged 15–49 who think that a husband/partner is justified in hitting or beating his wife/partner under certain circumstances.
In addition, numerous and repeated reports of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar found that sexual violence was widespread in Kachin, northern Shan and Rakhine, as well as other areas of the country. Women and girls from ethnic or religious minorities, as well as stateless women, remain especially vulnerable and often suffer multiple forms of abuse. Human trafficking and sexual slavery abroad also remain serious concerns, especially for younger women.
The combination of gender inequality and exposure to violence, harassment and abuse not only remain critical protection risks but serve as a significant impediment to women’s participation in decision making to support recovery, transition, peace building and development. Disabled women are particularly vulnerable and often face additional discrimination.
At 9.3 per cent, the unemployment rate among people aged 15-24 in Myanmar is more than double that of the national average of 4 per cent among people aged 15-64. Young people are often on the frontlines as agents of change in their communities and families, yet their contributions often go unrecognized and their voices are often not heard in decision-making.
Meeting the specific needs of young people and leveraging youth engagement, particularly women and girls, must remain priorities for humanitarian actors.
Persons with disabilities are also disproportionately affected in situations of risk and humanitarian emergencies, and face multiple barriers in accessing protection and humanitarian assistance. They are particularly exposed to targeted violence, exploitation and abuse, including sexual and gender-based violence. While efforts have been made in 2017 to improve data collection and needs assessment, non-discrimination, participation and inclusive response and services for persons with a disability still need to be strengthened.
The situation in Rakhine deteriorated dramatically in late 2017, with people still fleeing across the border in November to seek refuge in Bangladesh. The coming year could witness either further displacement, or returns of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees, or a combination of both. In this volatile environment where the staff of the United Nations (UN) and International Non-Government Organizations (INGOs) have no sustained access to many of the crisisaffected areas to independently evaluate needs and provide humanitarian support, it is not possible to provide a detailed and comprehensive assessment of humanitarian needs. The information on Rakhine State provided in this Humanitarian Response Plan is therefore based on best estimates available at the time of writing, fully recognizing that the situation may change significantly in the coming period. The plan does not address the needs of refugees in Bangladesh or of potential refugee returns. For further information about the refugee situation in Bangladesh, please see the Humanitarian Response Plan for the Rohingya Refugee Crisis, which was launched by the UN team in Bangladesh in October 2017.
Humanitarian needs will be re-evaluated as new information becomes available. In this regard, the UN and its humanitarian partners will continue to monitor the situation and liaise closely with the Union Government, the Rakhine State Government, the Committee for the Implementation of the Recommendations on Rakhine State, and the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development in Rakhine State. The pace of implementation of the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, particularly regarding solutions to displacement and relaxation of movement restrictions for Muslim people, will also have a profound impact on the scale and nature of needs over the coming year.
The complexity of the situation in Rakhine is described well in the Final Report of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. Although it was written prior to the events of 25 August 2017, the report’s observations and recommendations – which were welcomed by the Government of Myanmar – remain pertinent. The report states the following:
“On one level, Rakhine represents a development crisis. The state is marked by chronic poverty from which all communities suffer, and lags behind the national average in virtually every area. Protracted conflict, insecure land tenure and lack of livelihood opportunities have resulted in significant migration out of the state, reducing the size of the work force and undermining prospects of development and economic growth. Movement restrictions on the Muslim population hurt the economy. The failure to improve inter-communal relations, enforced segregation and the simmering threat of violence and instability continue to deter private sector investment. Although Rakhine is rich in natural resources, the development of extractive industries – such as oil and gas-related investments in Kyawkpyuh – have not generated a significant number of new jobs nor other benefits for local residents.
Both Rakhine and Muslim communities feel marginalised and disempowered by decisions taken in Naypyitaw.
Rakhine also represents a human rights crisis. While all communities have suffered from violence and abuse, protracted statelessness and profound discrimination have made Muslim community particularly vulnerable to human rights violations. Some 10 per cent of the world’s stateless people live in Myanmar, and the Muslims in Rakhine constitute the single biggest stateless community in the world. The community faces a number of restrictions which affect basic rights and many aspects of their daily lives. Approximately 120,000 people are still left in camps for Internally Displaced People (IDPs). The community has been denied political representation, and is generally excluded from Myanmar’s body politic. Efforts by the Government to verify citizenship claims have failed to win the confidence of either Muslim or Rakhine communities.
Finally, Rakhine is also a security crisis. As witnessed by the Commission during its many consultations across Rakhine State, all communities harbour deep-seated fears, with the legacy of the violence of 2012 fresh in many minds. While Muslims resent continued exclusion, the Rakhine community worry about becoming a minority in the state in the future. Segregation has worsened the prospects for mutual understanding. The Government has to step up its efforts to ensure that all communities feel safe and in doing so, restore inter-communal cohesion. Time alone will not heal Rakhine.”
Over 140,000 people were displaced by violence in 2012, of which over 128,000 are still in IDP camps or in camp-like settings. About 78 per cent of these people are women and children. Concerning the ongoing displacement, the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State’s report notes the following:
“Efforts to facilitate the return or relocation of IDPs have shown little progress. In 2014, the former Government sought to address this issue through the development of the Rakhine State Action Plan, which was only implemented to a limited extent.”
“In the meantime, living conditions in the camps remain poor with overcrowded shelters and inadequate access to services and livelihood opportunities. When shelters were constructed in 2012, they were built to last 2-3 years, and many are now in urgent need of repair or replacement. While IDPs wait for the opportunity to return or relocate, the Government – assisted by international partners – must ensure adequate living conditions in the camps. For this purpose, greater investments are needed.”
Displaced people, the elderly, people with disabilities and other vulnerable groups or individuals – particularly those in isolated communities – face particular difficulties in accessing healthcare and other essential services, as a result of limitations on the availability of adequate services as well as movement restrictions and insecurity. The Advisory Commission’s report states the following:
“Access to health services in Rakhine is low, both for the Rakhine and Muslim population. The World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended that the minimum number of health workers to maintain a functional health system is 22 health workers per 10,000 inhabitants. Currently, there are only 5 health workers per 10,000 people in Rakhine, compared to the national average of 16 per 10,000 people. Rakhine has a higher child mortality rate than the national average, and only 19 per cent of women give birth in professional health facilities (compared with 37 per cent nationally)1 . The immunization coverage is among the lowest in the country, and there have been multiple outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases over the recent years, predominantly in the northern part of the state. In a 2016 statewide study, 52 per cent of the respondents reported that they do not have access to adequate health care.2 ”
“The nutritional status of children in Rakhine State is the worst in the country, with 38 per cent of children stunted and 34 per cent underweight.3 Widespread poverty, exacerbated by conflict, has resulted in protracted trends of both acute and chronic malnutrition across the state.”
“While all communities suffer from inadequate medical services, access to health is particularly low within the Muslim community in the northern and central parts of the state. In some areas, Muslims face discriminative obstacles that prevent available lifesaving services from being accessed. Movement restrictions, but also language difficulties, inability to pay, limited availability of services in IDP camps, as well as the refusal of some health facilities to treat Muslim patients all prevent ready access to health facilities. While IDP camps only have limited capacity for primary care, basic emergency obstetric care, and basic emergency services, the bureaucratic procedures for referral to the Sittwe General Hospital are cumbersome and time-consuming.”
The health care situation has a disproportionate impact on women of reproductive age who often have limited options for family planning and who often remain without medical care and treatment during pregnancy. Given the already high levels of maternal mortality in the region, this remains a serious concern.
As mentioned above, there has been a dramatic deterioration in the situation in Rakhine State. On 9 October 2016, a series of armed attacks on Border Guard Police posts in northern Rakhine and subsequent security operations led to the exodus of 87,000 Muslims, most of whom call themselves ‘Rohingya’, to Bangladesh. On 25 August 2017, new attacks – carried out by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) – triggered large-scale security operations by government forces, leading to displacement on an even more dramatic scale. In the period that followed, over 600,000 people, the vast majority of them being stateless Muslims, fled their homes and sought refuge in Bangladesh by October, and hundreds of villages were burned. Over 25,000 Rakhine Buddhists and people from ethnic minority groups were also displaced during the violence. According to government reports, most of these people had returned by November, apart from about 2,000 people who have not yet been able to return to their place of origin. In both 2016 and 2017, reports of widespread human rights violations were documented. Hundreds of people have been killed, many more have been injured, and people have been deeply traumatized by the violence, including sexual and gender-based violence.
There are also disturbing reports of new landmines in northern Rakhine.
Under the current circumstances, it is not possible to accurately determine how many people remain in the three northern townships of Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung. The Government authorized the Red Cross Movement to operate in northern Rakhine, but it has denied most UN and INGO staff access to the affected areas. It has also denied access for an international Fact Finding Mission established by the Human Rights Council.
In his speech to the General Assembly in September 2017, the United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, called on the authorities in Myanmar to “end the military operations, allow unhindered humanitarian access and recognize the right of refugees to return in safety and dignity”. He also called on the authorities in Myanmar to “address the grievances of the Rohingya, whose status has been left unresolved for far too long”.
The violence in the northern Rakhine has had spill-over effects in central Rakhine. Increased tensions and local blockading of Muslim communities, combined with restrictions on access for humanitarian workers, have led to serious disruptions in the provision of essential services for aid-dependent Muslim people in camps and villages, many of whom report that their coping mechanisms are being exhausted. Humanitarian organizations in many sectors have been unable to adequately meet the needs of those they normally assist. Many of these people are now relying almost exclusively on community-based mechanisms. These disruptions have affected life-saving activities such as health services, including access to sexual and reproductive health services for women and girls, as well as nutrition services for malnourished children and food assistance. Gaps in the delivery of humanitarian assistance and protection services have exacerbated existing needs and potentially created new ones that will need to be addressed in 2018. In both camps and villages, Muslim people in central Rakhine are being subjected to increased movement restrictions, limiting their ability to trade, to access livelihood opportunities and health services. In villages across central Rakhine, many Muslim people who are now unable to earn a living have started resorting to negative coping mechanisms, leading to serious protection risks. If this increased isolation persists, many people who were previously self-sufficient will develop new humanitarian needs for food, livelihoods, healthcare and protection.
The Republic of the Union of Myanmar President’s Office has announced that on 23 November 2017 the Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh and the Government of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar signed an “Arrangement on Return of Displaced Persons from Rakhine State”. The announcement by the President’s Office mentions the following: “The Arrangement was based on the Joint Statement signed by the Foreign Ministers of the Government of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar and the People’s Republic of Bangladesh in 1992 and contained the general guiding principles and policy arrangements to systematically verify and receive the displaced persons from Rakhine State”. The Arrangement references the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to assist in the repatriation process. The United Nations and its humanitarian partners stand ready to support the refugees’ return in a voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable manner and once conditions are conducive.
In Kachin State, as a result of the armed conflict that re-started in 2011, over 91,000 people remain displaced in camps or camp-like settings, of which approximately 76 per cent are women and children. About 43 per cent of the displaced people are located in areas beyond Government control where international actors have limited humanitarian access but where local humanitarian organizations continue to operate, despite increasing constraints.
Armed conflict has been continuing in Kachin over the past 12 months, with variations in intensity and frequency. The situation remains volatile and there is a risk that new military operations may trigger further displacement. The sustained threat to physical security contributes to reduced freedom of movement and access to critical services. Access to markets is also hampered in many locations, especially for women and girls, affecting their wellbeing. Prolonged displacement has put a strain not only on the displaced but also on host communities.
There continue to be serious concerns about the protection of civilians, as illustrated by the situation that unfolded in Tanai township in July 2017 and later on in Mogaung township. While the Government initiated some projects to provide solutions for displaced people, return and relocation options have remained elusive for most of the displaced due to insecurity and ongoing armed conflict. Landmine contamination is another serious concern, affecting the safety and security of the civilian population and making it difficult to achieve durable solutions.
During 2017, there was a significant deterioration in humanitarian access to IDPs and other vulnerable conflictaffected people in Kachin State, particularly areas beyond Government control. Since April 2016, the Government and military have not permitted international humanitarian organizations to take food or other relief supplies into areas beyond Government control. Even in Governmentcontrolled areas, international humanitarian organizations have experienced unprecedented delays in obtaining travel authorizations for staff and this has affected the delivery of assistance and the quality of humanitarian operations.
While humanitarian assistance has been delivered regularly to IDPs in all accessible locations since 2011, the current lack of sustained and predictable humanitarian access remains a considerable challenge. The situation of IDPs in remote locations where protection services cannot be delivered on a regular basis is also of concern. Many of the IDP shelters constructed in 2011 are in urgent need of repair, particularly in the more remote areas bordering China where they are exposed to severe weather conditions. Education remains inadequate at all levels, from early childhood to secondary school, limiting opportunities to access the higher education system and diminishing growth and learning opportunities for young people.
In Shan State, over 15,000 people remain displaced in camps or camp-like settings. These people were displaced by the fighting that erupted in 2011. About 78 per cent of them are women and children. Sporadic fighting continues to be reported in northern Shan, further compounding the situation.
Displacement is caused either by fighting between ethnic armed groups and the Myanmar army, or as a result of fighting between different ethnic armed groups or militias, illustrating the complexity of the situation. Displacement in Shan State is often temporary, with many of the displaced returning home after fairly short periods of time.
In early March 2017, a series of attacks reportedly carried out by members of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) in Laukkaing, in the Kokang Self-Administered Zone, temporarily displaced an estimated 30,000 people. Most of those displaced from Laukkaing at that time subsequently returned. At the beginning of May, intense fighting between the Myanmar Armed Forces and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) led to further displacement.
Small-scale displacements due to fighting were also reported in Namtu, Kyaukme and Maukme townships in May 2017.
There are many protection concerns in Shan State related to the protracted nature of the conflict and continued displacement. In some cases, the same people are displaced multiple times. The most commonly reported protection threats include gender-based violence, forced recruitment, recruitment and use of children by armed forces, forced labour, lack of access to humanitarian services, lack of documentation, land grabbing/ occupation of places of origin, human trafficking particularly of women and girls across the border to China, landmine contamination and military occupation of schools.
As in Kachin, 2017 saw a further deterioration in access for humanitarian organizations in Shan State, leaving some locations which were previously accessible off-limits. Access difficulties have resulted in a reduction in the quantity and quality of humanitarian support to displaced people and other vulnerable communities.
Poverty in northern Shan is higher than Kachin, with 37 per cent of the population living below the poverty line, compared to the national average of 26 per cent, according to the 2010 Household Living Conditions Survey. Displaced people have found it difficult to restore their livelihoods and reduce their dependency on aid in an environment of continued militarization and with extensive landmine contamination. Myanmar has one of the highest landmine casualty rates in the world. Beyond mine risk education and immediate victim assistance, advocacy efforts have continued to focus on the need for mapping of mined areas, laying the groundwork for future demining. With reduced livelihood opportunities for displaced people, there is a risk of more people resorting to negative coping mechanisms, such as drug and alcohol abuse, which are leading risk factors for gender-based violence in the region. The ongoing conflict and related displacement also continue to strain the coping capacities of host communities.
In south-eastern Myanmar, decades of armed conflict have displaced and affected a large number of people, including some 100,000 refugees who remain in nine temporary shelters in Thailand. The southeast has been characterized by multiple waves of displacement both inside the country and across the border into Thailand. Accurate IDP numbers are difficult to ascertain.
Since 2016, with the new government and the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement in place, there has been a renewed emphasis on national reconciliation as articulated through the Panglong Peace Conference. In this context, there is an expectation that the socio-political and economic situation in south-eastern Myanmar may improve and further progress will be made in finding solutions for those affected by conflict and displacement. Support is needed for a strategy that includes facilitating the return and reintegration of refugees and IDPs and the strengthening of peace-building across different ethnic groups. However, the presence of the military and armed groups continues to have an impact on peace and development. While efforts to achieve nationwide peace are continuing, there remains a risk of further conflict and instability.
Some 5,600 people in Kayin State who were newly displaced in 2016 remain in a number of displacement sites. These displaced people are being supported by local authorities and community members.
The needs of the population in south-eastern Myanmar are closely interlinked with peace and state-building agendas and include landmine risks, land ownership and equal access to public services. Gender-based violence remains a major protection concern, with high levels of drug use being a key risk factor for violence against women and girls in the region.
In addition to continued humanitarian needs associated with conflict and inter-communal violence, Myanmar is one of the most disaster-prone countries in Asia. It ranks 2nd out of 187 countries in the Global Climate Risk Index. It also ranks 12th out of 191 countries in the Index of Risk Management (INFORM), and fourth highest in terms of exposure to natural hazards, after Bangladesh, the Philippines and Japan. The country has a wide variety of terrain and is prone to natural hazards including cyclones, storms, floods, landslides, earthquakes, tsunamis, drought and forest fires. Historical data shows that medium to large-scale natural disasters occur every few years. Since 2002, more than 13 million people have been affected by natural disasters, including three Category 4 cyclones, several major earthquakes, and severe flooding.
In 2017, Cyclone Mora brought strong winds and heavy rains in Myanmar, destroying over 16,000 houses in Rakhine and Chin states and Ayeyarwady Region. Rakhine was the most affected state and, in addition to the houses that were destroyed, over 60 per cent of the temporary shelters in IDP camps were damaged or destroyed. During the 2017 monsoon season, Myanmar experienced heavy flooding in 13 of the country’s States and Regions (the Union Territory consists of 14 States and Regions).
According to the Relief and Resettlement Department (RRD), the cumulative number of people who were temporarily displaced/evacuated in flood-affected areas was over 320,000. At least eight people were killed due to flooding. RRD, state and regional governments, the Myanmar Military and the Myanmar Red Cross Society (MRCS), as well as local and international non-governmental organizations, assisted in the humanitarian response to the floods, providing food, drinking water, shelter materials, hygiene kits and other relief items to displaced and other affected people.
Each year during the monsoon season, the Government supports people who face food shortages and damage to their homes and infrastructure as a result of natural disasters. The Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement has urged that greater attention be given to supporting vulnerable people with humanitarian assistance in some of the more remote and underserved areas such as the Naga Self-Administered Zone in Sagaing Region as well as Sawlaw and Kaung Lan Phu townships in Kachin State.
In 2017, about 30 earthquakes (all with a magnitude lower than 5) were registered. These earthquakes underline the importance of disaster risk reduction activities and ongoing efforts to support the strengthening of national capacities for disaster preparedness and response. There is a substantial need to build longer-term resilience, particularly among already vulnerable populations. To enhance the resilience of communities there is a need to invest more in disaster risk reduction and in strengthening capacities of local and national organizations (government and non-government) to reduce risk, plan for and manage disaster response. Women, girls, the elderly and persons with disabilities experience increased vulnerability to the effects of natural disasters as a consequence of existing systems of inequality and discrimination. Accordingly, any disaster risk reduction and response activities must prioritize the equitable participation of all groups and adopt a gender inclusive approach.
- UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
- To learn more about OCHA's activities, please visit https://www.unocha.org/.