Sittwe, January 2013: Standing amongst heaps of woven bamboo panels and corrugated iron sheets, Abdul oversees more than 20 fellow Rohingya workers building over a dozen barrack-type shelters, each to house ten families displaced by the recent inter-communal fighting. “I used to work for a European NGO”, Abdul explains. ”So I am using my skills to work with contractors who have been tasked to build these shelters. This way my people have at least a roof over their heads”.
1,600 families have found shelter in this camp called “Say Tha Mar Gyi”, located about 8 km north-west of Sittwe, the Rakhine State capital. Here the construction of the barrack-type temporary shelters is just one of the activities underway. Latrines have been constructed, water bore-holes installed. Others, such as Abdul and his four children have found shelter with host families in Rohingya villages nearby, which survived the devastating communal violence between Rakhine and Rohingya communities.
However, thousands still linger in make-shift shelters nearby. Some have received tents either from the government or the UNHCR. Thousands of hygiene and kitchen kits have been distributed including more than 25,000 blankets, mosquito nets, tarpaulins, and tents, much of it funded by the EU through the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department ECHO. But for thousands of Rohingyas who fled last years’ violence with little but the clothes on their backs, daily life remains a bitter struggle.
In mid -January I joined a team of five ECHO experts and visited Rakhine State in Myanmar on a four-day mission to make an assessment of the humanitarian needs of all the affected communities. We inspected the camps, spoke to the displaced and met colleagues from the international humanitarian aid community working on the outskirts of Sittwe, and who assist more than 115,000 victims of the violence.
What we found was an extremely complex humanitarian situation in which many areas of Rakhine State were affected in one way or another by the inter-communal violence. Conditions in the camps vary depending on where they are located.
Say Tha Mar Gyi near Sittwe is expanding rapidly as more temporary shelters are constructed. This gives the site the look of a town in the making, with small shops, communal buildings and play-grounds for children. Most of the displaced are from Sittwe town and used to work there as traders or day labourers. Being unrecognised by the authorities as citizens of Myanmar in line with the 1982 Citizenship Law, their life was tough before the violence erupted with little access to social services such as schools and hospitals. Cut-off from the town, they have no means to earn a livelihood and are consequently completely dependent on support from international aid organisations which are grappling with the size and complexity of the task.
In areas south of Sittwe where others have been displaced, the situation is much more dire. Divided by a labyrinth of water canals and rivers, boats are the only means of transport making the provision of basic humanitarian aid such as drinking water, food and shelter logistically extremely challenging. In the district of Pak Tauw, the conditions seem so bad that the term “camp” may not seem appropriate. Over 5,000 people from at least three destroyed Rohingya villages survive on a dry paddy field in structures made from pieces of corrugated iron sheets, torn tarpaulin, bamboo and reeds. The few sanitation facilities on site are inadequate for such a large camp. The nearby rain collection ponds of the villages are still accessible but are running dry. In two months, when the rainy season comes, these paddy fields will be ankle-deep in water and mud. These people will therefore have to move again. Nobody appears to know where they should go.
The UN agencies and many international NGOs in Myanmar are gearing up for long-term assistance programmes, but access remains a problem due to restrictions imposed by local authorities. Local workers of NGOs also face intimidation by the local population and four national staff are still detained or in prison.
Everybody hopes it will be possible for the Rohingyas to return to their original villages but in the mean-time simply meeting basic needs is the priority. ECHO has already committed over €8 million to assist the displaced families who lost their homes during the violence.
However, the international aid community is facing a serious dilemma: While there are acute and immediate humanitarian needs to be addressed, a policy of segregation must not be supported.
By Mathias Eick
ECHO’s Regional Information Officer in Bangkok