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Stranglehold tightens around Rohingya refugee camps

Supplies aren't getting through and time is running out in Myanmar

<p>Nori Slum lies on his bed in the Dar Paing camp in Rakhine state (photo by John Zaw)</p>

Nori Slum lies on his bed in the Dar Paing camp in Rakhine state (photo by John Zaw)

  • John Zaw, Sittwe
  • Myanmar
  • April 14, 2014
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Nori Slum’s ribcage, already much too visible on his emaciated torso, rises and falls in rhythm with the hacking cough he developed a year ago. The 45-year-old developed tuberculosis last year, forcing him to be quarantined away from his family in their hut in the Dar Paing camp for displaced persons outside of Sittwe in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

Many of the camp’s residents are dependent on the medicine provided by international aid groups, but Nori has gone more than a week without his. In late March aid organizations were forced to evacuate the region after orchestrated attacks on offices and equipment by Buddhist mobs angered at aid going to people like Nori Slum, a member of the Rohingya minority whom Rakhines believe to be illegal Bengali immigrants. In all, around 1,500 humanitarian staff have been forced to stop working.

The UN described it as “an attack on the entire humanitarian response in Rakhine state,” and lists have been circulated around Sittwe branding Rakhine people who had been helping the aid programs as “offenders”. Those Rakhine NGO workers who have remained in the town are now reluctant to continue work.

Nori Slum has so far survived the medicine drought, although he says he needs assistance “as soon as possible – I have no medicine and no food.” But his achievement is small compensation: tragedy befell his family on April 2 when his four-year-old daughter died of pneumonia. Her family was unable to get her to hospital in time, and the resources in camp clinics have suffered hugely as a result of the events of late March. Now is the peak of the dry season, and on top of the lack of healthcare, aid groups are warning that potable water in the more remote camps housing around 20,000 people will soon run out.

The evacuation of aid groups followed on from a decision by the government in February to suspend the work of French charity Medicins San Frontieres (MSF). The group was accused by the government of falsifying reports about its treatment of 22 survivors of a massacre of 40 Rohingya in northern Rakhine that the UN said involved Myanmar security forces.

Residents of the Te Chaung and Dapaing camps near Sittwe say that eight people have died from treatable diseases in the last two weeks. That is likely to rise unless aid is immediately reinstated, but aid workers complain that the government is stalling on allowing the resumption of assistance.

Myanmar’s Ministry of Health has said the government will be able to fill the void left by aid organizations, but confidence in this assertion remains low. In the 19-bed Dapaing hospital, which until the evacuation had been run by an international NGO, a government-appointed doctor comes for just three hours a day. A ucanews.com reporter visited the hospital around midday on April 7, but the doctor had already left, and referrals to the main hospital in Sittwe for Rohingya were being blocked.

Until its suspension in February, MSF had been the key provider of medical aid to the camps, but had also assisted around 700,000 patients across Rakhine state. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in a statement on April 2 that healthcare for more than 300 children with severe malnutrition in Sittwe camps had been suspended, and 15,000 children now have no psycho-social support.

Liviu Vedrasco, technical officer at the World Health Organization (WHO), told IRIN news on April 9 that the absence of services is “leaving hundreds of thousands of people without the only health care they had to begin with.”

HIV patients are also acutely feeling the loss. Anti-retroviral treatment for Maung Maung will run out at the end of April, the 35 year-old says from his hut in the Dar Paing camp. “I’m very concerned about whether I will get treatment next month,” he says. He faced a similar situation in 2012 when aid distribution was hampered by the first wave of violence between Rakhine and Rohingya, which eventually drove the thousands of Muslims into camps.

“Back then I couldn’t even move my body to go to the toilet,” he says, adding that his health problems are compounded by the worsening shortages in food.

There’s little that the victims of the violence can now do. Negotiations are ongoing between NGOs and the government, but time is running out for the refugees.

“I pray that international aid groups can resume their operations immediately, as praying is the only option for the vulnerable IDPs,” Maung Maung says.

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