UNHCR sends land aid convoy to Myanmar, airlift from Dubai starts
MAE SOT, Thailand, May 10 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency today sent the first UN land convoy of emergency aid into cyclone-hit Myanmar, crossing over from neighbouring Thailand to bring urgently-needed tents and plastic sheets to some 10,000 people made homeless by the disaster last weekend.
"This convoy marks a positive step in an aid effort so far marked by challenges and constraints," said Raymond Hall, UNHCR's Representative in Thailand. "We hope it opens up a possible corridor to allow more international aid to reach the cyclone victims."
"What we are sending in by road is in addition to the supplies we have already procured locally in Yangon and the 100 tonnes of supplies we started airlifting today from Dubai," Hall added.
In Mae Sot on Saturday, UNHCR's two-truck convoy carrying more than 20 tonnes of aid cargo, crossed smoothly over the Friendship Bridge border into Myanmar at 1.07pm local time after a brief exchange of papers at the border. The operation went without a hitch.
Crowds of local people had turned out on the streets of Mae Sot to watch the convoy pass through the town and over the bridge.
Meanwhile early Saturday, UNHCR started airlifting 100 metric tons of shelter supplies from its Dubai stockpile to Yangon. The first of the three planned flights, carrying 33 tonnes left on a World Food Programme aircraft Saturday morning and is scheduled to arrive in Yangon at 6.12pm local time. UNHCR's other flights are scheduled for early next week.
Saturday's flight carried 4,500 plastic sheets, 17,000 blankets and over 1000 kitchen sets.
The refugee agency is focusing on emergency shelter as part of joint UN efforts to help victims of the last weekend's cyclone that devastated Myanmar's Irrawaddy delta and parts of the main city Yangon. Among the casualties, more than one million people are estimated to have lost their homes.
In the immediate aftermath, UNHCR in Myanmar bought $50,000 worth of tarpaulin sheets, canned food and biscuits for distribution in the affected areas.
In neighbouring Thailand, it mobilised existing stockpiles of shelter materials meant for refugee camps along the Thai-Myanmar border. UNHCR warehouses were emptied in Kanchanaburi and Mae Hong Son in north-western Thailand. The tents and plastic sheets were loaded Friday onto trucks and driven about 1,000 kilometres combined along winding mountain roads to reach the border town of Mae Sot late last night.
The goods could have been stuck in Mae Sot over the weekend as customs posts on both sides of the border are closed on weekends. However, UNHCR negotiated with government officials in Thailand and Myanmar to exceptionally open the customs posts to allow the supplies to enter Myanmar.
"This operation could not have happened without the help of the Thai and Myanmar officials," said UNHCR's Alexander Novikau, who led the convoy movement from Mae Sot.
On Saturday afternoon, two trucks loaded with 4,600 plastic sheets and some 200 tents crossed the Friendship Bridge from Mae Sot to Myawadi in Myanmar. It was received on the other side by UNHCR staff members, who will follow the convoy on the two-day drive to Yangon. Thereafter, the supplies will be handed over to the Disaster Management Committee to be distributed under UNHCR monitoring.
In the $187 million UN Flash Appeal for Myanmar launched Friday, UNHCR is asking donors for $6 million to provide 250,000 cyclone victims with shelter.
By Vivian Tan in Mae Sot, north-western Thailand