Disease fears stalk displaced Muslims in western Myanmar

by Thomson Reuters Foundation Correspondent | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 3 May 2013 10:20 GMT

A woman prepares food at Thaechaung refugee camp, outside of Sittwe, Myanmar, April 2013. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Thomson Reuters Foundation Correspondent

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As rainy season looms, displaced Muslims in crude camps with poor sanitation and no healthcare face humanitarian catastrophe as government dithers on response, aid agencies warn

SITTWE, Myanmar (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - With big eyes and a belly swollen by malnutrition, the naked one-year-old sat quietly in his father’s lap instead of joining the gaggle of kids running around the sprawling camp home to more than 15,000 displaced Muslims.

The boy is recovering from diarrhoea, but the family has no money for a doctor, and there are no medical services in The Chaung camp, said his father Ayub Khan, a stateless 23-year-old Rohingya Muslim whose brother was killed during last year’s sectarian riots here in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

“We sold some rice we got as aid and used that money for an injection at a clinic near the market,” said Ayub Khan, who lost his home and job 10 months ago. His pregnant wife sat next to him sewing a sarong.

They did not know exactly what the injection was, but like others in the camp, they are desperate, worried that the coming rainy season will worsen their son’s health.

Within weeks, torrential downpours threaten to inundate the low-lying ground where their flimsy tent stands - and possibly spark an outbreak of highly contagious, vector-borne diseases in the cramped camp.

“The rains, exacerbated by the rudimentary shelters and inadequate sanitation, will mean an increase in diarrhoeal disease, respiratory infection and other health issues linked to people’s living conditions,” said Martine Flokstra, emergency coordinator in Myanmar with medical organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF).

Aid agencies and rights groups warn of a humanitarian catastrophe unless tens of thousands of people are moved to higher ground or provided with better shelters.

According to a recent United Nations report, “It is certain that the rains will result in floods in some 13 camps in Sittwe, Pauktaw and Myebon, where living conditions of 69,000 IDPs is already precarious.”

Those at-risk camps are sheltering Rohingya and other Muslims.


Two bouts of sectarian violence in June and October - mainly targeting the Rohingya, whom Myanmar does not recognise as citizens - displaced at least 140,000 people, most of them Muslims. About 90,000 are in camps around Sittwe.

The displaced Muslims live in hot, dusty and crowded camps where sanitation is often poor. Unlike the displaced Rakhines, who are mostly Buddhist, the Muslims are restricted from moving freely, unable to find jobs or access basic services such as healthcare, and forced to rely on aid.

In a recent diarrhoea outbreak, at least three children died and hundreds more were sickened. MSF’s Flokstra said a makeshift camp in Sittwe township has already flooded, and about 40 families were displaced yet again.

“We are running against time and lives are at risk,” said Bertrand Bainvel, Myanmar representative for UNICEF. “We are working urgently with the government to find solutions that are viable and sustainable.”

A government-led solution may prove elusive, however.

Rakhine state government spokesman Win Myaing said authorities need an accurate list of the displaced population to improve their living conditions and allow them to return to their villages.

Yet the exercise requires the displaced Rohingya to identify themselves as “Bengalis” - a term that they reject but that Rakhines and the government use to argue that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and should not be in Myanmar. Violence broke out in Thetkepyin village on April 26 after officials started compiling the list. Stones were thrown and arrests were made.


The process to compile the list is now on hold. It is unclear when it will restart or how the suspension will affect families like that of Sura Gardu, a grandmother who shares a small tent with seven family members in the dusty Basar camp.

“It rained once in April and flooded the whole area. Water came into the tent and we couldn’t sleep,” she said. After the rains, her 11-month-old grandson developed a cough and 10 days later, had not yet recovered.

Thousands of others do not even have aid agency-issued tents, living in flimsy straw huts that do not look like they could withstand a gust of wind, let alone tropical thunderstorms.

“Funds are desperately needed now to improve the water and sanitation situation in advance of the rains,” said UNICEF’s Bainvel.

“About $2 million from the U.N. emergency funds (CERF) has been provided, but about six times that amount will be necessary to meet critical water and sanitation requirements through to the end of the year.”

Access to healthcare in Rakhine - one of the least developed areas of Myanmar - was already poor prior to the crisis. Malnourished mothers and children is an ongoing concern. The harsh living conditions and local Rakhines’ hostility towards aid workers assisting the Rohingya have compounded the problem.

In the Dapaing district clinic, which appears to be the only permanent health structure for the 14 Muslim camps around Sittwe, there are no doctors and little medicine. Mobile clinics serve some camps, but the coverage is insufficient.

The clinic sees 100 to 150 patients a day but lacks proper equipment for surgery and even antibiotics.

Maung Maung Hla, a retired health assistant who has been volunteering, said the clinic requested help from the state health department but has not received a response.

“I’m worried there will be more cases of diarrhoea for adults and pneumonia for children when the rainy season comes,” he said. “But there’s not much we can do. Those who can get help or come to the clinic will be saved. Those who can’t may die.”

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