An increasing number of people are fleeing their homes in Rakhine as tensions grip the Burmese state four months after violence flared between Muslim Rohingyas and ethnic Rakhines, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees said Friday.
"[T]he scale of internal displacement is still growing with affected villagers continuing to leave their homes in search of food, healthcare and other assistance," the UNHCR office said, as one report described their living conditions in temporary shelters as "worse than animals."
Some 75,000 "internally displaced people" are living in temporary camps in three areas in the state, up from 50,000 shortly after the June violence, the UNHCR said.
Most of the those in the temporary shelters are Rohingya, who bore the brunt of the violence that left more than 80 people dead, and are regarded by the U.N. as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.
"According to figures provided by the local authorities, there are currently some 75,000 internally displaced people in IDP camps in Rakhine state, mostly in and around the townships of Sittwe, Kyauktaw and Maungdaw," UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told a press briefing on Friday.
"This is an increase from the initial government estimate of around 50,000 displaced people shortly after the unrest broke out in early June," he said, according to a summary of the briefing provided by the agency in Geneva.
Homes burned down
Edwards said that in early August, there was a resurgence of violence in Kyauktaw township as more than 4,000 people had their homes burned down in the attacks.
"Many more people are believed to have been indirectly affected by the violence," he said, adding that "the humanitarian community is committed to assisting all affected communities in accordance with the humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality and neutrality."
Despite the rising trend, there have been some returns, the UNHCR said.
Since June, for example, many displaced people whose houses remain intact in Sittwe town have gone home.
But Edwards said, "A fragile calm has returned but the situation is still tense."
"Movement is still restricted in parts of Rakhine state, preventing some villagers from going to work, accessing markets, food supplies, health services and education. Out of desperation, people are leaving villages to seek food and medical assistance at the IDP camps."
Together with its humanitarian partners, UNHCR has been advocating for greater humanitarian access and for support to be provided to these villages.
"We hope that by delivering aid in places of origin, humanitarian agencies can help to prevent further displacement and make interventions that can facilitate the eventual return of IDPs," Edwards said.
Those living in the temporary camps and other shelters are facing deteriorating living conditions, say local aid workers and residents, according to IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
“Right now [the displaced] are facing health problems from diarrhea, fevers and colds. A lot of [them] are living together in small spaces,” Mohammad Nawsim, secretary of the Rohingya Human Rights Association (RHRA) based in Bangkok, was quoted as saying by IRIN. “Their condition is worse than animals,” he said.
As of Sept. 25, the Burmese government estimated that some 72,000 Rohingyas and almost 3,000 Rakhines are displaced, the report said.
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, IRIN said.
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.
IRIN quoted Nawsim as saying that little has changed in recent months.
He noted that young and elderly Rohingyas in the temporary camps along the road leading west out Sittwe, the Rakhine state capital, as well as Sittwe township, are falling ill due to poor living conditions.
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.”
In addition, 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, IRIN reported.
While supplies and relief are getting into the camps, delivery is still hampered, said Lewa, who had visited the displaced in Sittwe with the NGO Refugees International at the end of September.
“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,” she said.
According to a report from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs last month, “humanitarian partners remain concerned that access is still limited to some affected areas and townships outside of Sittwe,” which includes aid groups which worked with Rohingya before the most recent bloodshed and 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.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon and Burmese President Thein Sein held talks in New York last week on the tensions in Rakhine state.
They "discussed the recent outbreak of violence in Rakhine state and the immediate and long-term perspectives to promote inter-communal harmony and address the root causes of the tension there, including developmental efforts," Ban's spokesman said in a statement.
"The President confirmed the country would address the long-term ramifications of this question," the spokesman said.
The Burmese government has set up an independent commission of inquiry to investigate the violence.
Reported by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.