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The international community has again issued urgent pleas to the Burmese government to restore humanitarian access and ensure the protection of residents — foreign and local — in Arakan State, where critical health and supply services were largely terminated in late March.
“Hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people in Rakhine [Arakan], mainly from the Rohingya community, are not receiving vital medical and humanitarian aid,” read a joint statement issued by the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Department for Internal Development. British Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire on Monday summoned the Burmese Ambassador to the FCO to urge restoration of humanitarian access.
The same day, UN Special Rapporteur Tomás Ojea Quintana called recent events in Arakan “the latest in a long history of discrimination and persecution against the Rohingya community which could amount to crimes against humanity”, and warned that the withdrawal of aid “will have severe consequences” on the right to life for both displaced Muslims and other isolated villagers.
Hundreds of aid workers were evacuated from Arakan State capital Sittwe after their homes and offices were ransacked by Buddhist mobs in what some witnesses have described as a premeditated offensive against aid workers, whom many locals believe favour the Muslim community.
While some critical operations have resumed, such as some water deliveries and at least one programme for severely malnourished children, services are for the most part stalled and currently running at a “bare minimum”, NGO sources said.
Pierre Peron, spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told DVB on Tuesday that while short-term measures are being negotiated, some highly critical services will need more stable solutions as the monsoon season draws near.
“In terms of health, the critical issue is still emergency medical referrals. The large majority of emergency medical cases are not being referred to the hospitals,” said Peron. “Because before, there were NGOs that could provide ambulances and boats, but that’s simply not happening anymore.”
About half of emergency referrals in the area are for critical labour complications, he said.
The removal of humanitarian aid has severely hampered access to healthcare for nearly one million highly vulnerable people in Arakan State, including about 140,000 Rohingya Muslims living in camps for internally displaced persons, since a rash of communal violence broke out in June 2012.
The main obstacles to full resumption of relief are physical space and travel authorisation. When workers fled from the area on the 27 March, homes and offices were looted and badly damaged, and some tenant contracts have since been terminated. Aid workers say they are having a difficult time finding physical spaces to work.
“The irony in all of this is that a lot of tourists are still going to Sittwe, and it’s peak season so a lot of the hotels are actually full. We [international aid groups] simply don’t have enough space,” said Peron.
The Burmese government has not issued travel restrictions for tourists in Sittwe, a popular destination for those en route to nearby Mrauk-U. Relocated aid workers still await authorisation to re-enter the area.
“These workers were in Rakhine State providing essential life-saving support, including health services, water and food to internally displaced persons, isolated villages, and other affected communities,” Quintana said in a statement, which also reiterated the findings of his final mission to Burma that, “crimes against humanity may have been committed in Rakhine State.”
The Burmese government was similarly chastised in February for expelling frontline health responders Médecins Sans Frontières from the state. The group’s renegotiated MoU with the government allowed them to resume operations elsewhere in the country, but they remain unable to operate in Arakan.