LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Ethnic Rohingya trapped in squalid camps in western Myanmar are living in conditions that are "a cross between apartheid South Africa and the West Bank", a British MP said following a trip to the region.
Some 140,000 people in Rakhine State were uprooted after two rounds of violence last year between Buddhist Rakhines and Muslim Rohingya - described by rights groups as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.
Refugee groups say 90-95 percent of the displaced are Rohingya.
The two communities are now segregated. Unlike the displaced Rakhines, the Rohingya are not allowed to leave their camps so they can no longer work and are reliant on aid. Malnutrition rates are near emergency levels.
"People were in a desperate situation and they are just trying to survive," said Shadow Development Minister Rushanara Ali, who visited camps in Sittwe and Pauktaw at the end of April.
"It’s like being in prison. It is – and I am not using this term lightly – like a cross between apartheid South Africa and the West Bank," she told a meeting at Britain's House of Lords attended by politicians, rights activists and aid workers.
Ali said people were dying because of a lack of healthcare, dire sanitation and poor humanitarian access to the camps.
She said international agencies in Myanmar were working in very difficult circumstances but she accused the World Health Organisation of complacency and called on it to coordinate emergency help and persuade Myanmar to improve access for doctors.
"By any standards they were among the worst camps that the international agencies had come across, and yet they don’t have the support that they need," Ali told Tuesday's briefing.
An estimated 800,000 Rohingya live in Myanmar, formerly called Burma, but the government denies them citizenship, regarding them as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants.
The Rohingya, who are officially stateless, say they have lived for centuries in what is now Rakhine State.
Ali said it was crucial the international community press Myanmar to grant citizenship to the Rohingya – which she said was the key to reducing their vulnerability to human rights abuses.
The parliamentarian from the opposition Labour party also warned of a real risk of tit-for-tat violence spreading outside Myanmar. There are fears that extremists, angered by the violence against the Muslim Rohingya, could launch reprisals in countries with Buddhist minorities, she said.
Human Rights Watch has called for an international investigation into the violence in Rakhine State which it says amounts to crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.
SWIMMING IN CONTAMINATED WATER
Some of the most desperate people Ali saw were living under shelters made of straw and bits of tarpaulin outside the camps. Around 15,000 people are in these makeshift settlements and have no access to aid.
But even in the official camps conditions are abysmal. Health and sanitation levels are appalling and death rates are a lot higher than they would normally be, Ali said.
"It's clear that the fact that there is limited access for humanitarian agencies into these camps is costing lives," she added.
At one camp in Pauktaw, people told her that 90 pregnant women had died. She also saw children swimming in water contaminated with faeces.
Ali said access to healthcare was a massive problem. No hospital will treat Rohingya patients except for one in Sittwe which has set aside just 12 segregated beds.
She also described a clinic she had visited with poorly trained nurses. Doctors from international agencies had offered their expertise but the state government would not give them access.
Rights group Refugees International, which accompanied Ali on the trip, is set to publish a report on the situation next week in which it will urge Myanmar's government to come up with a reconciliation plan and end the segregation.
Ali said she was very struck that both communities told her that relations were not bad before the violence flared.
"The Rohingya were very clear that it was not their neighbours or people they knew who were instigating the violence. It was external people coming in and causing the violence and burning villages down and amplifying any tensions that did exist," she added.
But Ali said there was now a high level of distrust and fear of reprisals on both sides.
"The everyday interactions that had existed – the business connections the trading relationships - all the things that make a village or a town tick (were) totally annihilated," she added.