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Malnutrition looms as refugee rations are cut

Refugees along Thai-Myanmar border fear imminent repatriation

<p><span class="Apple-style-span">Schoolchildren from the Mae La refugee camp</span></p>

Schoolchildren from the Mae La refugee camp

  • Stephen Steele, Mae Sot
  • Thailand
  • December 6, 2013
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Food aid for Myanmar refugees in camps in northern Thailand has been cut by 33 percent from December 1, prompting concerns that the refugees may soon face hunger and malnutrition.

The monthly rice ration for most residents has been lowered from 12 to eight kgs. This is the latest in a series of cuts that began in early 2012 when the ration stood at 15 kgs.

"Eight kilograms is not enough. We know this," said Mike Bruce of the Border Consortium, a coalition of NGOs that administers aid to the camps. “The change in rations is not a good thing."

However, he pointed out that rations of other staple foods remain at previous levels and the cuts do not apply to children, the aged and people suffering disabilities or illness.

He added that the rice ration for children under five years old has actually been raised, to 13.5 kgs.

But Mumu Paw, a 63-year-old resident of the Mae La refugee camp in Tak province, said the cuts mean her family will need to sell their clothes and other items in order to buy more rice.

"We are given food for free. We are not angry. We are very grateful for the help, but eight kilos is not enough” she told ucanews.com.

A foreign doctor assisting at Mae La told ucanews.com that eight kgs is the minimal amount needed to ward off starvation. "But there will be persistent hunger issues," he added.

Ker Moo, an assistant food distribution officer at the camp, told ucanews.com that workers are starting to see a rise in child malnutrition.

"We have reported this to the NGOs,” he said. “We told them, 'You should not cut our food. We need more not less'."

Paw and other refugees expressed a fear that the reduction is part of a larger strategy to wean refugees off aid and prepare them for a return to their native Myanmar. "Every time they reduce our food, the residents become worried," said one of them.

But Bruce said the cuts are simply due to a lessening of donations from outside agencies.

"These cuts are not about transitioning the refugees back to Myanmar, but rather it's about transitioning them toward self-sufficiency," he said.

Bruce said the consortium and other NGOs have increased job opportunities and vocational training as a way to help refugees become more self-sufficient. But spokesmen for the refugees say this is unrealistic, as the majority are either unregistered or lack the necessary documents to work outside the camps.

According to the Border Consortium, there are an estimated 129,800 refugees in 10 camps along the Thailand-Myanmar border. They have continued to grow as refugees fled ethnic violence and human rights abuses dating back to the 1980s.

Recent ceasefire agreements between the Myanmar government and ethnic insurgent groups, as well as political developments within Myanmar, have added to speculation that repatriation may be imminent.

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