LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – More than 125,000 Rohingya living in dire conditions after fleeing ethnic violence in western Myanmar face a humanitarian catastrophe as the monsoon approaches, a rights group has warned.
Death rates will rise in the coming months as rains swamp overcrowded camps, increasing the risk of serious diseases including cholera, said Melanie Teff, a senior advocate with Refugees International.
Teff, who has just returned from visiting the region, said Myanmar’s government had run out of time to relocate people or build robust shelters after repeatedly changing its plans.
“People are already dying because the appalling conditions they are living in are making them ill, and this will be hugely exacerbated during the rainy season,” Teff added.
“Water-borne diseases could have an enormous impact. There will be a humanitarian catastrophe if people are not moved to higher ground.”
The rains – due in three weeks – will also make it harder for aid workers to deliver water, food and other supplies to the camps in Rakhine state, Teff said in an interview.
Some 140,000 people have been uprooted in the region following two explosions of violence last year between Buddhist Rakhines and Muslim Rohingya - described by rights groups as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.
Teff, who was accompanied on the trip by British MP Rushanara Ali, called on the international community “to push for a clear plan for the rainy season because lives are going to be lost”.
The United Nations says 69,000 people will be at very serious risk during the monsoon season, which lasts until September. Most are living in flood-prone camps near the shore or in former paddy fields.
Fears are particularly high for some 15,000 people living in makeshift sites outside camps. They have no access to food aid, clean water or latrines and have to defecate in the open.
“Many are living in straw huts or under pieces of tarpaulin. These people are in a far worse situation than anyone I saw last year,” said Teff, whose previous visit was in September.
Most of the displaced – 90-95 percent of them Rohingya - are living in camps in Sittwe, Pauktaw and Myebon. Healthcare is minimal and malnutrition rates are near emergency levels.
Teff, who will brief British government and U.N. officials following her trip, said the Rohingya were desperate.
One widowed mother of six living in a camp at Pauktaw told her: “Our relatives are dead. We are alive, but life is dead … Death is better than our present life.”
An estimated 800,000 Rohingyas live in Myanmar, formerly called Burma, but the government denies them citizenship, regarding them as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. Bangladesh does not recognise them as citizens either and they are officially stateless.
Teff said tensions were extremely high during her visit because officials were trying to get the Rohingya to sign documents identifying them as Bengali.
“The Rohingya refused to sign. Stones were thrown. Shots were fired in the air and we were told two children were hospitalised,” said Teff, who visited the area two days after the April 26 confrontation.
“The community were very, very upset. They were saying, ‘We’re about to be under water and they are coming round with forms asking us to sign that we are Bengalis’. Why aren’t they focusing on the imminent humanitarian emergency.”
Unlike the displaced Rakhines, the Rohingya are not allowed to leave their camps so they can no longer work and are reliant on aid.
But Teff said some Rakhine communities are blocking aid groups from helping the Rohingya. The climate of fear is also making it hard for agencies to find local staff to work for them.
The lack of healthcare is particularly serious. Teff said only one hospital will treat Rohingya patients, the others have refused. The hospital has 12 segregated beds for the entire population.
She called on the World Health Organisation to urgently send a team to Sittwe to coordinate healthcare and identify gaps.
Teff said Myanmar must come up with a plan to end the segregation between the Rohingya and Rakhines, work towards reconciliation and extend citizenship to the Rohingya.
Most Rohingya told Teff they would like to return to their homes if there was protection.
One woman living in a makeshift site said: “If the government accepts us as Rohingya we can go back, as then the government will give us security. If we go back without security the Rakhines will kill us.”
But Teff strongly opposed a government proposal for boosting security by expanding the NaSaKa border force, which she said had a terrible history of abusing the Rohingya.
Teff also criticised the European Union for lifting sanctions on Myanmar last month following a spate of democratic reforms in the former military dictatorship.
“Removing any potential source of pressure is premature when the situation has not been resolved for the Rohingya and has in fact gone backwards,” she said.