For now, the United Nations’ refugee agency has been given breathing room to operate in a western corner of military-ruled Burma, where humanitarian programmes offer some comfort to the persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority.
The uncertainty stems from the predicament the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) faced as 2008 drew to a close. The junta in the predominantly Buddhist country ‘’appeared reluctant to renew UNHCR’s contract to work in Burma,’’ a diplomatic source revealed.
The problem arose with the immigration department, the local counterpart that the U.N. agency was assigned to work with. ‘’The immigration department had said that they will not sign the new agreement to work with UNHCR,’’ the source added. ‘’This meant that UNHCR could not continue with its operations.’’
A search for other government agencies to serve as local counterparts for the refugee agency ensued. The bureaucratic hurdle placed in the way of the UNHCR was dismantled this month, enabling what outwardly appeared to be a smooth visit to Burma by Antonio Guterres, the head of UNHCR.
‘’The whole point of Guterres’ visit to Burma in March was to find a local partner to continue UNHCR’s operations in the country,’’ a source, who spoke with IPS on condition of anonymity, said. ‘’The government approved a new agreement between the immigration department and UNHCR.’’
But the diplomatic muscle that Guterres had to flex during his visit, from Mar. 7-12, resulting in an about-turn by the junta, was not ordinary.
All humanitarian agencies working in Burma, or Myanmar, as the junta calls the country, are held hostage by the tough rules that have been imposed since February 2006, adding to limitations in an already difficulty environment.
‘’Under the new guidelines, foreign agencies must draft a memorandum of understanding with any concerned ministries before opening offices in Burma,’’ states ALTSEAN, a regional human rights body, in a study of the restrictions humanitarian agencies face in the oppressive South-east Asian nation.
‘’The Ministry of National Planning and Economic Development released the so-called ‘Green Book’ of guidelines to a meeting of international aid organisations in Rangoon,'' ALTSEAN stated.
‘’These guidelines set up complicated approval processes, restricted travel to and within the country, established new regulating bodies as well as empowered existing ones and altogether hindered the work of aid organisations in Burma, both foreign and domestic,’’ adds ALTSEAN.
UNHCR’s work in the Arakan state, where the persecuted Rohingyas live, goes back nearly 15 years. It established a presence to monitor and aid the over 230,000 Muslim refugees returning to Burma from neighbouring Bangladesh, where the Rohingyas had fled in 1991 to escape a wave of oppression unleashed by the Burmese military.
The Rohingyas had fled in massive numbers earlier, too. In 1978, some 200,000 sought safety in Bangladesh to escape a form of ethnic cleansing mounted by the military. There were reports then of widespread killing, rape and the destruction of mosques, according to human rights groups.
Currently, six U.N. agencies have humanitarian programmes in Arakan to assist an estimated 750,000 Rohingyas who are victims of harsh policies that show no signs of easing up.
The junta-imposed restrictions deny the Rohingyas free movement from village to village, they cannot get married freely, they are victims of rape and torture, are subject to forced labour and have to endure land confiscation and extortion.
The Rohingyas, who grabbed the headlines in recent months, after the boats they were fleeing in to Malaysia washed ashore in southern Thailand, also endure another form of discrimination not experienced by Burma’s other 135 ethnic minorities. They have been stripped of their citizenship rights since 1982.
Little wonder why the World Food Programme (WFP), which has been helping the Rohingyas since 1994, has barely felt a drop in the numbers of people they have been feeding, currently some 350,000. ‘’The numbers have remained the same,’’ says Paul Risley, spokesperson for the Asia office of the U.N. food relief agency.
The plight of Rohingya children adds another grim detail. ‘’Malnutrition rates have remained very high among the most vulnerable section of the population,’’ Risley told IPS. ‘’Thirty percent of children under five years show stunting.’’
In fact, the area where the Rohingyas have been boxed in, in the Arakan state, was described as a ‘’hunger hot spot’’ in WFP’s most recent food security survey of Burma, done in November last year. The survey also revealed that WFP was reaching only half the number of Rohingyas who need food for their survival.
This shortfall in assisting this discriminated minority was also highlighted by the UNHCR. The agencies current level of activity to help the Rohingyas ‘’does not correspond to the actual needs,’’ Guterres had noted, a statement revealed.
Guterres also singled out areas of concern to the UNHCR: ‘’from prevention of displacement, to voluntary return, registration and legal status, and the improvements to economic and social conditions.’’
Yet such disclosure has failed to impress rights advocates who have monitored the plight of the Rohingyas for years. ‘’I am worried that the issues which are really causing the Rohingyas to flee, like the lack of legal status and the human rights violations, were not openly discussed,’’ says Chris Lewa, lead researcher of the Arakan Project.
‘’The key root causes behind Rohingya displacement have not been openly acknowledged,’’ she said in an interview. ‘’There are concerns that the UNHCR’s recent statement was a bit soft.’’