Myanmar: UNHCR builds houses, peace of mind for Cyclone Nargis victims

News Stories, 28 July 2010

© UNHCR/A.Naing
To better understand the needs of people who were displaced by Cyclone Nargis two years ago, UNHCR staff visited them in their relocation sites, such as this one in Sat San Village in Bogale Township.

KANASO NGU VILLAGE, Myanmar, July 28 (UNHCR) In the horrible trail of destruction left by Cyclone Nargis two years ago, Daw Pyu was left scavenging for any scrap material she could cobble together to put some sort of a roof over her head.

"We really needed help after our terrible experience," says the 50-year-old widow. "I did not have anything except a UNHCR blanket to keep me warm when it rained."

Fast forward to today and, thanks to UNHCR, Daw Pyu, her son and daughter are living comfortably in a roomy house typical of the local construction -- a thatched roof and bamboo-mat walls on a wooden frame. It stands on stilts above the floodplain of the Irrawaddy Delta in Bogale Township, where more than 10,000 people lost their lives to Nargis, one of the 10 deadliest cyclones on record, and certainly the worst natural disaster ever to hit Myanmar.

Recalling the horrors of being left homeless by Cyclone Nargis, which hit on 02 May, 2008, Daw Pyu looks around her living area and kitchen and now says: "I could not have believed that I would ever own such a nice house in my life."

Right after Nargis, she says, it was impossible to find drinking water, plagues of mosquitoes bred around the shattered houses, and there was no way to cook a hot meal. Once they built a makeshift shelter, it wasn't even weatherproof as the monsoon rains continued.

"We could not even sleep with peace of mind," she says, "as we were worried that the rain and wind would destroy our fragile shelter."

The UN refugee agency moved into the delta quickly with emergency relief -- plastic sheeting, blankets, mosquito nets, cooking pots, jerry cans -- followed later by homes for the most vulnerable, like Daw Pyu. UNHCR also helped the local authorities issue national registration cards. These allow villagers to obtain public services and travel without securing permission of the village head.

UNHCR emergency assistance went to more than 400,000 people (some 85,000 families). In addition, the UN refugee agency gave 8,800 families construction materials and other help to build homes under programs that have contributed about US$8 million since the cyclone.

Daw Pyu's house was not an outright gift, but was a way to help her family get back on their feet. As they helped build it, they were paid daily wages and learned carpentry skills that will help them earn a living in the future in an area where many depend on fishing and farming.

"Their participation in the project gave them a sense of ownership," says Kyaw Thu Lwin, UNHCR field assistant in Bogale.

And acquiring the house on their three acres of land has given Daw Pyu's family immeasurable contentment.

"We do not need to worry about shelter anymore when there is wind and rain," she says. "With peace of mind, we can now farm our land more, bringing more income."

And dream about branching out into different crops. With the new national registration card issued to them by government authorities with UNHCR's help, one of Daw Pyu's children muses: "We could apply for a farming loan from the bank."

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UNHCR country pages

Myanmar IDPs pick up the pieces in Rakhine state

A humanitarian crisis is unfolding across Myanmar's Rakhine state, where some 115,000 people are desperately in need of aid after being displaced during two waves of inter-communal violence in June and October 2012. The displaced, most of them ethnic Rohingya, have sought shelter in temporary relief camps and others remain scattered across the state, living under tight security in their destroyed villages. Conditions are harsh: the camps are overcrowded and some lack even the most basic of sanitation facilities while many of the villages are totally destroyed and running low on water. In one village, more than 32 families were living cheek-by-jowl in just two large tents. The children have no access to education and the newborn and elderly are in a very vulnerable position due to a lack of medical facilities. UNHCR is distributing relief supplies and working with the authorities and partners to improve camp conditions, but international assistance is required.

Myanmar IDPs pick up the pieces in Rakhine state

Living Silence: Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh

"Living Silence" is a photographic exhibition of one of the world's most enduring refugee crises, by award-winning photographer Saiful Huq Omi.

Bangladesh has hosted refugees for over three decades. Today, 28,000 refugees from Myanmar known as the Rohingya - an ethnic, religious and linguistic minority people - are living in the two official refugee camps in the south-east of Bangladesh. Over half of them are children, many of whom have only ever experienced life in the camps. It is estimated that there are a further 200,000 Rohingya living outside the camps, unable to return to Myanmar where they fear persecution and exploitation.

Like refugees around the world, the Rohingya refugees are survivors. They are living in transience, waiting for the day they can go home in safety and in dignity. Until then, like any other people, they aspire to live a life free from violence and exploitation.

Together with other UN agencies and NGOs, UNHCR provides shelter, water, primary education and health care to refugees from Myanmar in the Nayapara and Kutupalong camps. UNHCR is also working with governments around the world to resettle some of the most vulnerable.

Living Silence: Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh

Climate change and displacement

In the past few years, millions of people have been displaced by natural disasters, most of which are considered to be the direct result of climate change. Sudden weather events, such as Myanmar's Cyclone Nargis in 2008, widespread flooding in Kenya's Dadaab refugee camps in 2006 and the drought that hit Ethiopia in the 1980s, can leave huge numbers of people traumatized and without access to shelter, clean water and basic supplies.

The international community has entrusted UNHCR with responsibility for protecting and assisting people who are forcibly displaced and who cannot return safely home. Although the majority of people displaced by climate change will remain within their own borders, where states have clearly defined responsibilities, additional support may be required.

When called upon to intervene, UNHCR can deploy emergency teams and provide concrete support in terms of registration, documentation, family reunification and the provision of shelter, basic hygiene and nutrition.

Among those who are displaced across borders as a result of climate change, some will be refugees while others may not meet the definition. Nevertheless, many may be in need of protection and assistance.

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