YANGON, Myanmar – The head of humanitarian affairs for the United Nations on Friday described conditions as dire in some camps housing refugees from communal violence in western Myanmar.
Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos also called on the government to allow the U.N. to travel to areas in northern Myanmar controlled by ethnic Kachin insurgents who are fighting against the army, in order to provide assistance to civilians affected by the strife.
Her remarks at a news conference at the end of a four-day visit underscored concerns about Myanmar’s stability even as the country makes strides toward a democratic society under the reformist government of President Thein Sein after almost five decades of military rule.
“There have been a number of very encouraging political developments this year but also a number of humanitarian challenges that need to be addressed where the United Nations and our partners can help and make a difference,” she said.
She called on the government to promote reconciliation in Rakhine state, where antagonism between the Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya communities burst into deadly violence, killing around 200 people on both sides and displacing about 110,000 people, the vast majority of them Muslims.
Amos said the level of assistance provided in eight different refugee camps she visited varied significantly, but in one in Myebon she saw “thousands of people in shockingly overcrowded, substandard shelter with poor sanitation.”
“They don’t have jobs, children are not in school and they can’t leave the camp because their movement is restricted. The situation is dire,” she said.
There is widespread resentment of the Rohingya community, whom many in Myanmar regard as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh out to steal their land. The resentment extends to U.N. and other agencies who provide relief to the displaced Rohingya.
“In Rakhine, the tensions between the communities are still running very high. There is a loss of trust and I believe the government must play a critical role in reconciliation,” said Amos. “We need the political leaders at all levels in Myanmar to support the important humanitarian work being done by the United Nations and our partners.”
Amos also visited Myanmar’s other crisis area in the north.
“In Kachin and northern Shan states, continued fighting since June last year has forced some 75,000 people from their homes and in need of assistance,” she said.
She explained that for almost six months the U.N. has not been able to provide assistance to almost 40,000 people as it is not permitted to go to areas controlled by the Kachin rebels, who seek more autonomy from the government.
“We have asked the government to give us permission to travel to these areas and provide the aid that is so badly needed,” Amos said.
Myanmar is also commonly referred to as Burma.