‘Humanitarian catastrophe’ unfolding as Myanmar takes over aid efforts in Rakhine state
Officials fear aid blockade could become permanent in region where Rohingya Muslims have reportedly been massacred by soldiers.
The Myanmar government has taken control of aid operations in the country’s crisis-hit Rakhine state, as reports continue of massacres and “ethnic cleansing” by soldiers on the Muslim population there.
Senior officials and Human Rights Watch have told the Guardian they believe the move could become permanent, ending vital food and health programmes run by international agencies. Already there is an aid blockade on UN agencies that workers say is having a severe impact on malnourished children.
The UN has described the humanitarian situation for Rohingya people in northern Rakhine as catastrophic. Nearly 400,000 Rohinyga have fled into makeshift camps in Bangladesh since 25 August, when coordinated assaults on security outposts by Rohingya insurgents prompted a massive military crackdown.
After a meeting with leading aid donors, the government said earlier this month that it would work with the Red Cross movement to “provide humanitarian assistance to all those affected by the terrorist attacks”.
On the same day, however, UN aid agencies were barred from northern Rakhine. The Guardian understands that only the government, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Myanmar Red Cross Society are now working in the area.
Sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Guardian they fear a deliberate attempt to undermine aid operations.
“We’re slowly getting kicked out,” said one. “This could fundamentally shift the way we operate here. The amount of time it will take to get back, or even if we are allowed, is all up in the air and in the meantime there could be a humanitarian disaster,” they said.
Rohingya people in Myanmar, apparently fleeing across a river with their belongings
“The government clearly don’t want us there. It’s an attempt to keep us out in a way that doesn’t fall on them; they can use security as an excuse. It’s obvious what’s going on,” they added.
“As per their mandate, the ICRC don’t say anything, that’s why they want them. The area is the same one where the UN fact-finding investigation is meant to take place,” the official added, referring to a UN-mandated mission to investigate alleged atrocities by the army.
“The other issue is that the Red Cross and government simply will not have the capacity to scale up,” the source said. “The UN and international NGOs have long-held relationships with the community and they have the knowhow and capacity to deliver it, and are ready to resume activities. But it just doesn’t seem that it’s moving in that direction.”
One senior aid agency official echoed these sentiments: “The concern is that they simply will not have the capacity to scale up to the necessary amounts to support everyone there. The needs are going to be enormous. We’re talking about, possibly, the entire population of the Rohingya community in northern Rakhine in need of aid, let alone the more chronic issues of development.”
The move also sparked “fear that this becomes a new norm for the way aid is delivered in Myanmar” and this could “spill over to other national emergencies and conflict zones”, the official said.
Rohingya refugees wait for aid at Balukhali makeshift refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Photograph: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters
Leaving international agencies out in the cold could not only curb help reaching those in need but also mean a lack of independent witnesses to any atrocities.
“I think if you’re going to have a government leading this humanitarian response to a Muslim population they don’t even see as citizens – without witnesses on the ground, without UN and [other agencies] being there – there’s huge protection risks,” said the aid official.
Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director, said he believed the moves could be part of a government strategy to hinder the flow of information from the ground. “It’s becoming clear that the Myanmar government may be moving forward with a larger political plan to replace agencies on the ground in Rakhine with the much more malleable and less-inclined-to-speak-publicly Myanmar Red Cross,” he said.
“The plan would then be to tap that national society’s connections to the international Red Cross movement to ensure assistance dollars continue. By doing so, Myanmar’s leader and her military allies are doubling down on a truly cynical strategy to threaten the disruption of humanitarian supplies to displaced persons in order to control the narrative about the events on the ground.”
Two months ago, a World Food Programme report concluded that more than 80,000 children may need treatment for malnutrition, and that there had been a sharp rise in “extreme” food insecurity. Several NGO and UN sources said this report elicited government anger, and even drew threats from some officials that agencies would be expelled from the country, amid claims that the review was conducted “without the relevant permissions”.
One source said, “They instituted a policy on assessments and research. Now they’re applying rigorous protocol. What this means is you can’t really do them now because you have to get approval. This is just another tool they are using to clamp down on the humanitarians.”
Agencies have faced government accusations of staff collaboration with “terrorists” from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. A post issued by Aung San Suu Kyi’s office on social media last month said the presence of WFP biscuits at militants’ camp may mean that the aid organisation was supporting the group. WFP vigorously denied the claims.
Macarena Aguilar Rodriguez, a Unicef spokesperson said: “For the time being we are unable to reach the 28,000 children who were receiving psychosocial care, as well as the almost 6,500 children under five who were being treated for severe acute malnutrition treatment in northern Rakhine. We are no longer able to provide the almost 2,000 caregivers with access to infant and young child feeding counselling, and our water and sanitation interventions, which have been reaching some 25,000 people only this year, are also no longer operative.”
An elderly Rohingya woman collapses, after the wooden boat she and her companions were travelling on from Myanmar crashed into the shore, in Dakhinpara, Bangladesh. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Sanela Bajrambasic, ICRC spokesperson, acknowledged its expanded role but said: “The ICRC is not stepping up on behalf of any other organisation or NGO. The ICRC has a presence in the state since 2012 and we have been helping the population according to our humanitarian mandate and principles … We need to scale up our support.”
Stanislav Saling, spokesman for the UN resident coordinator, welcomed the government’s intention “to lead a humanitarian response to provide assistance to all people affected after the 25 August attacks”.
When asked about the risk of a long-term replacement of international humanitarian operations, he replied, “We all share the same concerns.” He added that he had not been made fully aware of government proposals.
“Without seeing the plans, we can’t say anything,” he said.
A spokesperson for the government of Myanmar could not be reached for comment.