The first of two UNHCR airlifts arrives in Burma's Rakhine state | Asia Pacific

The first of two UNHCR airlifts arrives in Burma's Rakhine state

The first of two UNHCR airlifts arrives in Burma's Rakhine state

Updated 26 November 2012, 23:12 AEDT

The first of two aid airlifts by the UN's refugee agency for thousands of people displaced by sectarian violence in Burma has arrived in Rakhine state.

Two flights were despatched from Dubai over the weekend, to deliver 3,500 family-sized tents.

A senior spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says the tents will provide shelter for about 17,500 internally-displaced people.

Presenter: Sen Lam

Speaker: Adrian Edwards, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, in Geneva

EDWARDS: Well, the first of the two flights left Dubai where we have our regional stockpiles, on Friday. That arrived Friday evening in Yangon (Rangoon) and the supplies brought with it, essentially two thousand 'family' tents, they're on their way to Sittwe at this time. The second flight, we're waiting for clearance and expecting that to depart Dubai tomorrow at the moment. What we do in emergencies like this, is try to bring in as many tents as we can, to as many people as possible. Obviously, getting people into these larger tents is the fastest way to accomodate many people. The big accomodation needs - in these huge makeshift sites around Sittwe, in particular. It's there that the focus is at the moment. Further north in Rakhine state, around Maungdaw where there's a little bit more focus on rebuilding of homes there. But we want to get these tents to help as many people as possible, mainly in the Sittwe area.

LAM: And would you say that shelter is one of the most important needs to be served by aid agencies?

EDWARDS: It's certainly a hugely important issue. We estimated 115-thousand people are in need of help, and it's help of various different kinds - obviously not everyone needs shelter but many people do. In the camps, there's also the problem of food and malnutrition has been reported from a survey carried out back in July. So we are looking at people in rough conditions, people who're displaced don't have anywhere to go, they do need shelter, they do need help. Children in particular are vulnerable because of the malnutrition and in some cases, acute malnutrition we're seeing.

LAM: And Adrian, when we last spoke to an aid agency a few weeks back, they reported that the camps in Sittwe, where you say the camps are going - that those camps are overflowing, with very unsanitary conditions. What's your information about the situation there now?

EDWARDS: We don't have a lot of information more than what you are hearing. We do have teams on the ground, but one of the problems is access across the whole area. We've made a number of trips with our staff there, but access for humanitarian workers is not what it should be, and we've had promises from the authorities to help with access to displaced people. But apart from this of course, there is the political need, which is for reconciliation amongs the communities, including the affected and including host populations. And this has to be a priority for us. We're supporting the work of the Investigation Commission set up by the Myanmar (Burma) government to clarify root causes of the event. But we need a political solution to the problem there, we need calm to prevail, and we need access.

LAM: So the humanitarian airlifts you conducted on the weekend - was that made with the full coooperation of the Burmese authorities?

EDWARDS: Yes, we are getting cooperation of the Burmese authorities. There're some areas of blockages and we're looking to improving the speed with which we can get access from Yangon, supplies from Yangon to Sittwe. But the access issues are not so much a blockage on the side of the authorities but simply a reflection of the continuing insecurity in the area, although right at the moment, there's a somewhat calmer situation.

LAM: Where the Burmese government is concerned, rights groups have been calling on the government to repeal its 1982 Citizenship Law, which all but makes the Rohingyas stateless and unwanted. The UNHCR now says it's ready to assist the Burmese government on this issue - what kind of assistance are you looking at?

EDWARDS: Well, we help a number of governments in dealing with populations who're stateless, it's part of our mandate to do so. We can provide legal advice, provide other help on how to go about these things. In our view, the large Rohingya population in western Myanmar, ultimately needs a solution to it, that comes about through citizenship, and we are prepared to do all that's within our ability to help the government to bring that end about.

LAM: The US President Barack Obama visited Burma a week ago, and it was said then that Burma had been rewarded far too soon, and that gross abuse of human rights are still going on in the country, including the government's oblivion to the treatment of Rohingyas in Rakhine state. Do you think Naypyidaw is showing signs of moving on this Rohingya issue?

EDWARDS: Well, there's a lot of change happening very fast, in Myanmar and we, like others are watching and analyse and make sense of what is going on. We're hoping for the best. Our High Commissioner has visited there, we have now more than a hundred staff working there. Clearly, a lot of change is happening, but I think, like everyone, we have to wait and see, and in the meantime, focus on our priorities, which are to, as a humanitarian organisation, do our job of getting help to ALL those who're affected.

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