Six months on, needs still great in Myanmar's Rakhine state

Briefing Notes, 7 December 2012

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 7 December 2012, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

Six months after inter-communal violence broke out in western Myanmar's Rakhine state, some 115,000 displaced people are still living in challenging conditions. UNHCR has distributed relief supplies to nearly two-thirds of the affected communities but the needs are still massive.

Currently, people are unable to return to their homes due to widespread destruction and continuing tensions. We are working with the Myanmar authorities on awareness of proper standards for safe and voluntary return when the right conditions are in place. In addition, we continue to advocate citizenship as a solution for those who are displaced and without nationality.

More than 100 people were killed and thousands of homes destroyed in waves of unrest in June, August and late October. Today the displaced people are living with host families and in relief camps and temporary sites. In recent weeks, makeshift shacks have sprouted on roadsides in the state capital, Sittwe. Some shack dwellers say their host families could no longer support them while others are believed to have come from remote camps in the hope of getting assistance.

This week UNHCR erected tents donated by the Korea International Cooperation Agency to provide better shelter for these recent arrivals. We have also moved approximately 5,000 people into longhouse-style bamboo huts on the outskirts of Sittwe. We are also building additional ones for more than 12,000 and more than 220 permanent homes for returnees in Maungdaw.

As part of the inter-agency response to the emergency in Rakhine state, UNHCR is leading efforts in protection, shelter, non-food items and camp coordination and management for the displaced people. Our assistance is targeted at both affected communities based on their needs.

To date, UNHCR has distributed supplies including plastic sheets, blankets, and kitchen sets to some 70,000 people. An additional 3,500 UNHCR tents are scheduled to arrive by boat in Sittwe this weekend to provide emergency shelter to people displaced in October, and now in scattered locations including Pauk Taw, Mrauk-U, Kyauktaw and Myebon.

UNHCR is working with the authorities and other humanitarian agencies to ensure basic standards in the relief camps around Sittwe. Shelters, for example, need to be properly spaced out to prevent overcrowding and the potential health and social problems associated with overcrowding. We are also advocating for the provision of water, sanitation and health care services, and a way of managing the camps that involves the displaced communities themselves.

There are still areas in the Rakhine state that are hard to reach due to their remote location and continuing tensions. Nonetheless, UNHCR staff have distributed basic relief items and are advocating with the government and partners to improve site planning and provide basic services there. Some NGO staff have been reluctant to go to certain areas where inter-communal tensions are still high. In Myebon, UNHCR has been distributing aid and providing transport for doctors to attend to the sick.

At the same time, efforts must begin to pave the way for the eventual return of displaced people in safety and dignity. UNHCR has been urging the government to do more in the affected villages to promote tolerance and peaceful coexistence between the two communities, so as to create an environment conducive for return.

The UN refugee agency has received less than 30 per cent of the $24.35 million we need to care for the displaced people in Rakhine state until June next year.

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