Looming rains raise shelter fears for displaced in Rakhine state, Myanmar

Briefing Notes, 19 April 2013

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 19 April 2013, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR is calling for urgent action and increased financial support to improve conditions for displaced people in Myanmar's Rakhine state to avert a humanitarian catastrophe when seasonal rains start in just a few weeks time.

UNHCR is seriously concerned about the risks facing over 60,000 displaced people in flood-prone areas and in makeshift shelters. From May to September, the monsoon season is expected to unleash heavy rains and possible cyclones in Rakhine state, where more than 115,000 people remain uprooted after last year's inter-communal violence.

The most critical sites are in Sittwe, Pauktaw and Myebon, where the displaced are living near the coast and are vulnerable to tidal surges. Some have camped in paddy fields or low-lying areas that will flood once the rains start. Flooding will exacerbate the already fragile conditions of shelter and sanitation, and increase the risk of water-borne diseases. In addition, several thousand people are still living in tents and flimsy makeshift shelters made of tarpaulin, rice bags and grass that cannot withstand even moderate rains.

UNHCR and its partners have urged the Myanmar Government to address shelter needs as a matter of priority. Adequate land should be identified promptly and challenges related to water and sanitation facilities suitably addressed. These points were discussed with authorities and partners when UNHCR's Assistant High Commissioner for Protection and the Director of the Asia-Pacific Bureau visited Sittwe earlier this month and expressed grave concern at the prevailing situation.

UNHCR welcomes the progress made so far in identifying suitable land to temporarily relocate groups of displaced people. At the request of the Government, UNHCR has committed to build temporary shelters for some 24,000 displaced people In Myebon and Pauktaw, while the Government will provide accommodation to those displaced in Sittwe's rural areas.

Since the displacement started in Rakhine state last June, UNHCR has constructed temporary shelters in the form of bamboo-framed longhouses for 14,400 displaced people. It has also built permanent homes for nearly 500 people who have returned to their areas of origin, and distributed tents to house some 28,000 people. Additional funding is urgently needed to allow UNHCR to meet its commitments within the very short time period left before the rains.

The high-level UNHCR delegation to Myanmar also stressed the need for reconciliation between communities and other tangible actions to improve security in Rakhine state so that the displaced can enjoy their rights, including freedom of movement, and access to services and means of livelihood. UNHCR raised concerns about the risks of protracted displacement, separation of communities and onward secondary movements affecting the whole region.

Since June last year, an estimated 27,800 people the majority of them believed to be from Rakhine state have left on boats from the Bay of Bengal. Hundreds are believed to have drowned en route and many more have landed in countries like Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

The authorities in Myanmar have reaffirmed their commitment to work towards long-term solutions for the displaced. UNHCR has called on countries in the region to keep their borders open to people in need of international protection and to offer them temporary assistance and protection until durable solutions can be found. In parallel, the agency continues to press for root causes of the outflow to be addressed by promoting peaceful co-existence and economic development in Rakhine state, pursuing practical measures to ensure basic rights for everyone there, and eventually granting access to citizenship to those individuals who are currently lacking it.

UNHCR revised its overall financial requirements in March 2013 to respond to the situation in Myanmar. Total financial requirements for the 'Myanmar situation' are now established at US$80.6 million, of which US$71.4 million are for the Myanmar operation itself, and US$9.2 million for activities in Thailand related to the Myanmar situation. As of 18 April 2013, UNHCR had received US$9.9 million, representing 14 per cent of its requirements for the Myanmar operation.

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