Burma's displaced Rohingyas in squalid and overcrowded camps | Asia Pacific

Burma's displaced Rohingyas in squalid and overcrowded camps

Burma's displaced Rohingyas in squalid and overcrowded camps

Updated 30 October 2012, 22:05 AEDT

ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan has warned that sectarian violence in Burma could radicalise minority Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state, and de-stabilise the rest of Southeast Asia.

Speaking in Jakarta, Dr Surin called called on the international community to help after clashes in Rakhine between Muslims and Buddhists this month killed at least 88 people and displaced more than 26,000.


There're an estimated 800-thousand Rohingyas in Burma, but the government sees them as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.

Meanwhile, reports from Rakhine state's capital say camps for the displaced are getting overcrowded and squalid.

Chris Lewa visited the Sittwe camps in September, as researcher for Refugees International.

She says the camps were already squalid, well before this month's latest violence.

Presenter: Sen Lam

Speaker: Rohingya advocate Chris Lewa, Director of the Arakan Project in Bangkok. Chris Lewa was in Sittwe as consultant for Refugees International

LEWA: Most of the population of Sittwe, except one neighbourhood, has basically been displaced now, and are forced to live in rather squalid refugee camps, which mostly are a sea of tents. The (Burmese) government with the aid of international groups and agencies has already started building some transitional shelter in bamboo, but even these shelters are also very overcrowded - one room allocated to one family, and of course, there're still many people staying in tents.

There were two schools in the area which were totally overcrowded. We heard that two thousand people were squeezed into one small village school area. And they had to sleep all over in the class rooms and they were cooking outside, but it's really overcrowded and sanitation especially was very unacceptable. For example, one camp, we saw there were only twelve toilets for two thousand people.

There was some food distribution, including non-food items, like pumps established for them to get drinking water. But was really lacking was the water and sanitation and also, health services. We found a couple of local clinics set up by the Ministry of Health, but they were empty. We were told that medical staff were visiting only in the morning very briefly, and there was definitely a need for urgent humanitarian assistance, especially in terms of health and of course, the overcrowding was another problem.

LAM: We've tried several times without success to ask the Burmese government what they plan to do about the crisis in Rakhine state, but from what you saw in Sittwe, how do you think the local authorities were coping?

LEWA: Well, I'm not sure it's only the matter of the local authorities. First of all, the situation in Sittwe was still very volatile and extremely tense. The two populations (Rakhines and Rohingyas) were completely segregated, that means people living in the camps could no longer even go for a walk, or to work in the town. And so there's need for humanitarian assistance. The local staff would not dare to go work in the camps, so there was a significant lack of capacity.

And of course, another issue, which was very serious, is the lack of funding. Despite the pledges and promises, there was very little money that had filtered to the ground.

Just after my visit, the neighbourhood of Aung Mingalar, which was still standing and partially destroyed during the June unrest - every week there were attempts by Rakhine extremist groups and others, to attack it. And the (Burmese) military are inside and has so far managed to protect it, but I wonder for how long. And the people there live in fear and also in extreme need, because they cannot work outside the quarter and as they're not displaced, they don't receive humanitarian assistance. So that situation was extremely dire in Aung Mingalar.

LAM: Do we have a rough estimate of the refugee numbers currently in the Sittwe camps?

LEWA: Well, before the crisis, the figure was 68-thousand roughly, but now with the new crisis, I think the UN declared again, there was another 30-thousand displaced not just in Sittwe but somewhere else. another ten thousand of more have arrived in Sittwe in the last few days, and there're people still apparently waiting in boats just trying to reach the camps. And the situation is ongoing, so it's difficult to give any kind of clear estimates.

LAM: You mentioned people fleeing in boats - I gather that in the past six months alone, to May this year, that eight thousand Rohingyas have left Rakhine or neighbouring Bangladesh by boat for Malaysia or Thailand. And these figures were the highest since you started tracking these boat journeys back in 2006?

LEWA: The figures I quoted earlier were an estimate, of course, no one knows the exact figure. But that's for the sailing season, before the crisis happened in Arakan (Rakhine) State. So now we may expect that there may be many people who try to flee to other countries. Already in June and now again, some boats have tried to land in Bangladesh, but Bangladesh has been turning them away, but at the same time, some of these desperate people, they will find the only way to go somewhere else. Obviously in Malaysia or other countries, where there're already a number of Rohingyas there, those countries may see a new influx.

Malaysia has so far treated the Rohingyas much better than Bangladesh. However, the problem is also access to protection, and that is not the end of the problem for the Rohingyas. One does not know what would be the reaction, if there is a big influx, a large of people arriving suddenly - this is difficult to predict.


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