CHIANG MAI, 4 October 2012 (IRIN) - Nearly 75,000 people living in temporary camps and shelters following inter-communal conflict in Myanmar's Rakhine State in June face deteriorating living conditions, say local aid workers and residents.
Where to go from here?
"Right now [the displaced] are facing health problems from diarrhoea, fevers and colds. A lot of [them] are living together in small spaces," said Mohammad Nawsim, secretary of the Rohingya Human Rights Association (RHRA) based in Bangkok. "Their condition is worse than animals."
As of 25 September, the government estimated some 72,000 from the (mainly Muslim) Rohingya ethnic group and almost 3,000 people from the (mainly Buddhist) Rakhine ethnic group are displaced. They are staying in 40 camps and temporary sites in Sittwe and Kyauktaw townships, from where they are still able to access schools and work.
Immediately after the outbreak of violence in June, aid agencies visited areas in four affected townships and identified sanitation and clean water as major needs. At the time, only about 30 percent of the surveyed displaced persons had access to clean water, while six out of 10 people did not have any way to store it even if they secured some.
A number of camps had only one latrine serving 100 persons. Little has changed in recent months said Nawsim, noting that young and elderly Rohingya in the temporary camps along the road leading west out Sittwe (capital of Rakhine State) as well as Sittwe township are falling ill due to fetid living conditions.
Long-simmering ethnic and religious tensions between Rakhine State's majority population from the Rakhine ethnic group and its minority Rohingya population erupted in early June after the alleged rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by a group of Rohingya.
Meanwhile, Rohingya both in the camps and villages have reported arbitrary arrests and detention, said Nawsim, citing frequent phone calls with those in and around camps and shelters for the displaced.
"They send me messages and then I call them back but it's still very dangerous for them to have mobile phones because the soldiers will search them often. They used Bangladesh mobile phones. The phone only works for a while so when I get on the phone they will give me all details such as how many people are missing and which villages they come from."
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division based in Bangkok, told IRIN the displaced are "effectively restricted to camps by both the security forces and by the violent attacks they fear from the Rakhine [community]."
Most Muslims have shuttered their former businesses and left Sittwe after the authorities ordered their departure, said Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, an advocacy organization for the Rohingya.
While supplies and relief are getting into the camps, delivery is still hampered, she added.
Based on her visits to the displaced in Sittwe with the NGO Refugees International at the end of September, she said: "Many of the staff of the NGOs are local workers and are afraid to go to the Muslim camps - not so much that they are afraid to be attacked by Muslims in the camps, but they are mostly afraid that if the Rakhine Buddhists see that they are assisting the Muslims, they will be attacked by their own community."
According to a 4 September report from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, "humanitarian partners remain concerned that access is still limited to some affected areas and townships outside of Sittwe," which includes aid groups working with Rohingya before the most recent bloodshed which have now been forced to discontinue their services.
International aid workers report being unable to get travel authorization to work in affected northern townships in Rakhine State, including Maungdaw, which borders on Bangladesh and where almost 500 homes were burnt down in the violence.
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled persecution in Myanmar over the past three decades, the vast majority to Bangladesh in the 1990s.
International aid efforts
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Myanmar's President Thein Sein discussed how to address the root causes of inter-communal tensions in Rakhine State, including through development efforts, on 29 September at the recent UN General Assembly meeting in New York. The president said the government would address the needs.
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A multi-agency Rakhine Response Plan estimates it will take some $32.5 million to cover basic emergency needs until the end of the year for an estimated 80,000 displaced.
"Most people in the camps believe they will never be able to go back to the town, even though the government says the camps are only temporary," Arakan Project's Lewa said.
Aid groups working in Rakhine State are meeting in Myanmar's capital - most recently on 22-23 September - to review longer-term issues of relief, rehabilitation and rule of law in the state.
According to the UN database which records international humanitarian aid, the Financial Tracking Service, and not-yet-recorded recent donor announcements, some $11 million has been pledged or contributed to humanitarian assistance in Rakhine State this year.