Medical Crisis Looms in Rakhine

Thousands lack health care and provisions eight months after violence shook western Burma.
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An MSF staffer holds a clinic in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Pauktaw township, Feb. 3, 2013.
An MSF staffer holds a clinic in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Pauktaw township, Feb. 3, 2013.
Photo courtesy of MSF

An international aid group on Thursday warned of a “humanitarian emergency” in western Burma’s Rakhine state following communal violence in the region last year that has forced nearly 6,000 Rohingyas to flee to neighboring Thailand.

Eight months after violence between the Muslim Rohingyas and ethnic Buddhists in Rakhine state, “tens of thousands of people” still lack access to “urgently needed medical care,” Paris-based Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said in a statement.

“[MSF] calls on government authorities and community leaders to ensure that all people in Rakhine are able to live without fear of violence, abuse and harassment, and that humanitarian organizations can assist those most in need,” the statement said.

Since clashes rocked the region in June and October last year, leaving at least 180 people dead, ethnic Buddhist Rakhines and Rohingya communities that had previously lived together peacefully are now “deeply divided,” the group said.

Thousands who have been left homeless by the violence—the vast majority of which MSF said were members of the Rohingya group—are now living in makeshift camps and are in need of health care, clean water and basic provisions.

Rights groups believe that the Rohingyas bore the brunt of last year’s clashes.

“It is among people living in makeshift camps in rice fields or other crowded strips of land that MSF is seeing the most acute medical needs,” said Arjan Hehenkamp, MSF General Director.

“Ongoing insecurity and repeated threats and intimidation by a small but vocal group within the Rakhine community have severely impacted on our ability to deliver lifesaving medical care.”

MSF quoted a man living in a displaced persons camp in Pauktaw township as saying that the women of his group were particularly at risk.

“We have more than 200 pregnant women in our camp. For their delivery they cannot go to a health centre and they will have to deliver here … in the mud, without a doctor,” he said.

MSF has routinely documented cases of skin infections, worms, chronic coughing, and diarrhea in the camps and said that its staff members had encountered “alarming numbers of severely malnourished children.”

Obtaining clean drinking water is also a problem because of the continued threat of violence, MSF quoted another man from the Pauktaw camp as saying.

“The only drinking water pond we have is the one which we have to share with the cattle of the nearby village. Five minutes from here is a pond with crystal clear water. We don't dare to go.”

MSF said that it has also endured continued threats and hostility—largely by members of the Rakhine community who accuse the group of having a pro-Rohingya bias—despite the acute need for assistance in the region.

“Our repeated explanations that MSF only seeks to provide medical aid to those who need it most is not enough to forestall the accusations,” Hehenkamp said.

“MSF urges supportive community leaders and government authorities to do more to counteract the threats and intimidation so that humanitarian aid can be delivered to those who urgently need it.”

Boat refugees

MSF’s statement came as Thailand on Thursday confirmed that nearly 6,000 Rohingyas, described by the U.N. as among the most persecuted minority groups in the world, had illegally entered the country’s territorial waters by boat since October last year.

Of the 5,899 Rohingya who entered Thailand, 1,752 are now in holding centers, police stations or welfare shelters, the country’s Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) spokesman Dithaporn Sasasamit told Agence France-Presse. He said that an unknown number were pushed back to sea.

The Rohingya, who are denied citizenship by Burma, have long been viewed by Burmese authorities and by other Burmese as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, though many have lived in Burma for generations. Some 800,000 Rohingyas live in Burma.

Thai authorities said last month that they are investigating claims that some military officers had assisted in steering Rohingyas into the hands of human smugglers, who activists say charge them huge sums of money to transport them to Malaysia.

Thailand has said that they will allow Rohingyas in the country to stay for up to six months in detention while the government works with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to find third countries to accept them. But authorities have said they will turn back any additional Rohingyas who arrive illegally.

Early last month, Thailand sent 73 Rohingya, including as many as 20 children, back across the border after authorities determined that the overcrowded boat in which they had landed on Jan. 1 was unsafe for continued travel by sea.

Authorities had originally planned to push the boat back out into open water and on to Malaysia after supplying the asylum-seekers with food, water, and fuel.

Ahead of a landmark visit by U.S. President to Burma at the end of last year, Burmese President Thein Sein assured the international community that his government will consider resolving contentious rights issues facing the Rohingya, including the possibility of providing them citizenship.

Reported by Joshua Lipes.





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