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Fears for displaced Muslims as cyclone nears Myanmar

Storm could be disastrous for thousands of refugees

Daniel Wynn, Yangon

Daniel Wynn, Yangon

Published: May 13, 2013 09:05 AM GMT

Updated: May 12, 2013 11:44 PM GMT

Fears for displaced Muslims as cyclone nears Myanmar

Rohingya boys pump water at the Bawdupha Internally Displaced Persons camp outside Sittwe, western Myanmar (Photo: AFP/Soe Than Win)

Authorities in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state have begun moving tens of thousands of people to safety ahead of a powerful tropical cyclone which is expected to hit the area in the next few days.

About 90,000 people living in coastal areas of Maungdaw township in northern Rakhine State have been moved to higher ground, local officials said. Cyclone warnings have been announced via loudspeakers in the town, he added.

Cyclone Mahasen is currently passing over the Indian Ocean in the direction of Bangladesh and Myanmar, and is forecast to hit Myanmar’s western coast on Thursday.

Tens of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) are residing in makeshift camps outside the Rakhine state capital of Sittwe, having been forced from their homes during sectarian rioting last year. The vast majority are stateless Muslim Rohingyas. Shelters in many of the camps are flimsy and unable to withstand extreme weather conditions.

Win Myaing, a local government spokesperson in Rakhine state, said they were being moved to stronger buildings, although other reports from Sittwe claim only registered IDPs have been moved. Despite months of warnings about the impacts of the approaching monsoon season on Rohingya refugees, the government has been slow to act.

 “The priority is given to the refugees living in low-lying areas. The local medical staff, fire fighters and Red Cross staff have been prepared to launch emergency rescue operations,” he said.

The UN has sent an emergency disaster team to Sittwe. In a statement however it expressed concern about 17,000 refugees living in Pauktaw, a rural coastal town, who so far have not been relocated to safe areas and who are particularly vulnerable given the lack of protection from rain, high winds or a storm surge.

“The camps are on rice fields that can easily flood. Safe locations for these IDPs must be found as a matter of priority,” said a UN statement released on Sunday. “This requirement has been clearly communicated to the state authorities by humanitarian partners.”

The World Food Programme distributed rice to the refugees in Sittwe on Sunday, said a UN official in the region who wished to remain anonymous.

The region lying alongside the Bay of Bengal is prone to seasonal storms. Myanmar is no stranger to natural disasters, with Cyclone Nargis in 2008 killing close to 140,000 people in the Irrawaddy Delta region. 

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