An international aid worker, who recently returned from the conflict-torn Arakan state, told DVB that she visited remote areas around the state capital Sittwe, where people were forced to beg for food from locals and registered IDPs in order to survive.
“What most of the world is not aware of are the refugees that are not living in [registered] camps,” said Oddny Gumaer from Partners Relief and Development. “And those people are living in conditions that are so bad that I’m sure if the international community doesn’t do something very soon they are going to die.”
She told DVB that she was “overwhelmed” by the conditions in some of the areas she visited, which she described as akin to “concentration camps”.
“If they are lucky they have a tarp to cover them, many of them have stitched together old rice sacks. There are no toilets, no sanitation, doctors, and no access to hospitals. I saw babies that were so malnourished and children with bloated stomachs and mothers that couldn’t feed their babies because they didn’t have any milk.”
Arakan state was rocked by two bouts of sectarian violence in June and October last year, when the majority Buddhist population clashed with the Muslim Rohingya — a stateless minority group viewed as illegal Bengali immigrants by the government. While most of the displaced have been registered as IDPs and receive some form of humanitarian aid, many of the Rohingya have not.
A recent report by the World Food Programme (WFP), the UN agency formally tasked with humanitarian distribution in Arakan state, recognised the problem of unregistered Rohingya camps on the outskirts of Sittwe.
“Unregistered IDPs do not receive assistance from the international community, leaving them largely reliant on donations from host villagers and external religious organisations,” said the report released in late January. “As a consequence, living conditions for “unregistered” IDP populations are not good, with most living in small huts made of straws and pieces of tarpaulins.”
According to the report, many “unregistered” families fled after the October conflict, because of ongoing tensions or fears of renewed clashes in their local area, “sometimes at the behest of authorities”. But a WFP spokesperson insisted that the “majority” of those displaced in last year’s violence are receiving assistance.
“There is still a relative fluidity to the situation and people are still moving, but the government, WFP and other humanitarian actors are doing everything we can to make sure that all those who should be registered are,” Marcus Prior told DVB.
The UN agency says it registered an additional 15,000 people between December and January, bringing the total number of IDPs to 125,000. But it is likely that thousands more, as well as host communities who have lost their livelihoods as a result of travel restrictions, are in need of aid.
“Without a proper assessment led by government it is very difficult to say how many additional people need assistance,” Kirsten Mildren from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) told DVB via email.
“We know anecdotally that there are people that have arrived from Sittwe town and rural areas to the camps outside Sittwe. Some estimates say as many as 10,000.”
A spokesperson for the local state government blamed the Rohingya for refusing to stay in one place.
“I would like to say that [IDPs] in Pauktaw should stay in Pauktaw; why come to Sittwe or Tharyar?,” said Win Myaing in an interview with DVB. “Now, when we are making a list in the camp over here, then people from [another camp] will come. Frankly, [the Rohingya] are just attempting to make the list bigger so that they can get more aid.”
He also accused the UN of “failing” to provide for unregistered IDPs and host communities affected by the violence. “WFP doesn’t provide aid at all for the unregistered refugees. But our government; the state government, is distributing aid for all those who are on the list or not on the list.”
WFP insists they have managed to secure access to most of the areas in Arakan state, except for the very remotest. But other aid groups say access continues to be severely hampered by local hostility and government indifference.
Since violence first erupted last year, local nationalists have led a vociferous campaign against international aid groups, who they perceive as treating the Rohingya favourably, even though they account for the vast majority of those displaced.