Sat 31 May 2008
Filed under: International,News
Human rights groups lashed out on Saturday at Burma’s military leaders for evicting cyclone refugees from relief camps and forcing them back to their storm-shattered homes.
The US-based group Human Rights Watch said hundreds, if not thousands, of displaced people had also been expelled from schools, monasteries and public buildings. In the nation’s biggest city, Rangoon, there were eyewitness reports of one eviction from a Christian church.
A UN official said on Friday the government was making cyclone survivors leave the camps and “dumping” them near their devastated villages with virtually no aid supplies.
Another group, Refugees International, said authorities appeared to be trying to get villagers back to their land to begin tending their fields and reviving agriculture.
“While agriculture recovery is indeed vital, forcing people home without aid makes it harder for aid agencies to reach them with assistance,” it said.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates added his voice on Saturday to critics of the junta’s handling of the humanitarian crisis, saying that its obstruction of international efforts to help cyclone victims cost “tens of thousands of lives.”
With US ships off Burma’s coast poised to leave because they have been blocked from delivering assistance to the ravaged country, Gates said in a speech in Singapore the US will continue to try to get aid in.
US military officials have indicated they are about to withdraw the navy ships, since it did not appear the Burmese regime would allow them to unload their supplies.
Eight camps set up for homeless survivors in the Irrawaddy River delta town of Bogalay were “totally empty” as authorities continued to move people out of them, Teh Tai Ring of the United Nations Children’s Fund, or UNICEF, said at a meeting of UN and private aid agency workers discussing water and sanitation issues.
“The government is moving people unannounced,” he said, adding authorities were “dumping people in the approximate location of the villages, basically with nothing.”
After his statement was reported, UNICEF issued a statement saying the remarks referred to “unconfirmed reports by relief workers on the relocation of displaced people affected by” the May 2-3 storm.
In his remarks at the water experts’ meeting, however, Teh said the information came from a relief worker who had just returned from the affected area and that “tears were shed” when he recounted his findings earlier in the day.
Separately, at a church in Rangoon, more than 400 cyclone victims from a delta township, Laputta, were evicted Friday following orders from authorities a day earlier.
“It was a scene of sadness, despair and pain,” said a church official at the Yangon [Rangoon] Karen Baptist Home Missions, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of official reprisals. “Those villagers lost their homes, their family members and the whole village was washed away. They have no home to go back to.”
He said all the refuge-seekers except some pregnant women, two young children and those with severe illnesses left the church in 11 trucks on Friday morning.
The authorities told church workers the victims would first be taken to a government camp in Myaung Mya-a mostly undamaged town in the Irrawaddy delta-but it was not immediately clear when they would be resettled in their own villages.
Anupama Rao Singh, regional director of UNICEF, who visited the affected area recently, warned on Saturday against premature resettlement. She did not confirm that evictions had taken place.
“Premature resettlements to the villages, even if it’s voluntary, will cause serious risks to the refugees,” she said.
“Many of the villages remain inundated with water, making it difficult to rebuild. There is also a real risk that once they are resettled, they will be invisible to aid workers. Without support and continued service to those affected, there is a risk of a second wave of disease and devastation,” she said.
Aid groups, meanwhile, said the Burmese military government was continuing to hinder foreign assistance for victims of the cyclone, despite a promise to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to ease travel restrictions.
Some foreign aid workers were still awaiting visas, and the government was taking 48 hours to process requests to enter the Irrawaddy delta, the groups said.
An estimated 2.4 million people remain homeless and hungry after the cyclone hit Burma. Official estimates say the storm killed 78,000 people and left another 56,000 missing.
Teh said some of the refugees were “being given rations and then they are forced to move.” But others were being denied such aid because they had lost their identity cards, he said.
The government’s reasons for allegedly moving people out of camps and shelters have not been publicly clarified, but it earlier declared the “relief” phase of the rescue effort over and said it was time for “reconstruction.”
Foreign aid experts disagree, arguing many people still need emergency assistance of food, shelter or medical care.
“Our teams are still encountering people who have not seen any aid workers and still have not received any assistance. Some of the villages that are only accessible by foot are particularly vulnerable,” said the aid group MÃ©decins Sans FrontiÃ¨res.
Aid workers who have reached some of the remote villages say little remained that could sustain the former residents. Houses were destroyed, livestock were dead and food stocks have virtually run out. They said medicines were nonexistent.
“The forced evictions are part of government efforts to demonstrate that the emergency relief period is over and that the affected population is capable of rebuilding their lives without foreign assistance,” Human Rights Watch said.