UN gives Myanmar aid cut warning over Rohingya camp closures

The majority of Myanmar’s Rohingya were driven into Bangladesh by a 2017 army crackdown, but around 400,000 remain inside conflict-battered Rakhine. (File/AFP)
Updated 18 June 2019
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UN gives Myanmar aid cut warning over Rohingya camp closures

  • Myanmar has closed several camps holding around 9,000 Rohingya
  • They have not been allowed to return to their former homes and remain dependent on handouts

YANGON: The UN has warned it will pare back aid to thousands of Rohingya Muslims left destitute as Myanmar’s government closes camps in Rakhine state, over fears its continued support “risks entrenching segregation.”
Aid agencies are facing an increasingly sharp dilemma in the region as they balance relief for desperate communities with leverage over the government.
The majority of Myanmar’s Rohingya were driven into Bangladesh by a 2017 army crackdown, but around 400,000 remain inside conflict-battered Rakhine.
Those include nearly 130,000 held since 2012 in squalid camps, currently supported by UN agencies and humanitarian groups.
As part of its strategy to address the crisis, Myanmar has closed several camps holding around 9,000 Rohingya.
But they have not been allowed to return to their former homes and remain dependent on handouts. Instead, they are being settled in new accommodation close to the former camps.
That has sparked fears aid agencies are effectively being used to prop-up a policy that fails to address the fundamental needs of the Rohingya, including housing, work, food and security.
The camp closure plan “risks entrenching segregation,” UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Myanmar Knut Ostby wrote to the government in a leaked letter, dated 6 June and seen by AFP.
The letter, also written on behalf of aid groups, warned support “beyond life-saving assistance” at the closed sites would in future be linked to “tangible” progress made on “the fundamental issue of freedom of movement.”
“Life-saving” support includes food, health and water, but site planning, shelter construction and education facilities could be phased out, aid agency sources told AFP.
The UN has faced criticism for a slow response to violence against the Rohingya, which escalated after 2012 riots between Muslim Rohingyas and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists.
A UN report released Monday admitted “systemic failures” in its handling of the build-up to the Rohingya crisis.
Limited access to Rakhine’s camps makes independent reporting on conditions difficult.
But AFP has reviewed recent interviews conducted in five camps by an NGO requesting anonymity to protect its work.
“If I build a house, it can be seized arbitrarily,” one Rohingya man said.
“I have no right to the land and I can also be arrested at any time.”
An aid worker called the remaining 23 sites in Rakhine little more than “concentration camps.”
On condition of anonymity, she spoke of the “complicity” humanitarian staff feel for perpetuating the segregation.
Amnesty International has described Rakhine as an “apartheid state.”
All aid must be “heavily conditioned,” researcher Laura Haigh said, warning donors that building infrastructure could make them complicit in crimes against humanity.
The government defended the camp closures, telling AFP it would continue working with the UN and NGOs on the issue.
Any former camp resident holding a National Verification Card (NVC) will be able to “move freely within their township” and access “education, health facilities and livelihood activities,” the social welfare ministry said.
Most Rohingya refuse to apply for the card believing they should already be treated as full citizens.
Those interviewed said the few to have caved had no more rights than anyone else.
They were also forced to designate themselves as “Bengali,” a term implying they are from Bangladesh.
“They are just trying to dominate us and make us illegal through different ways,” one Rohingya man said.


Mired in poverty, Afghans bring their children to work

Updated 53 min 11 sec ago
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Mired in poverty, Afghans bring their children to work

  • Brick factory owners offer loans in exchange for working hours
  • WB director for Afghanistan said more than 50% of Afghans live on less than a dollar a day

KABUL: Every day before dawn, 10-year-old Kamran goes to work with his father and other relatives at a brick factory on the outskirts of Kabul.
Like many children in Afghanistan, school is a luxury his family can no longer afford. His father, Atiqullah, supports his family of eight as well as several siblings, nieces and nephews. One of Kamran’s uncles is ill and another has passed away, leaving their families in his father’s care.
“My children wake up early in the morning and right after prayers they come here for work, so they don’t have time for school,” said Atiqullah, who like many Afghans has only one name. “These days if you don’t work, you cannot survive.”
The US and its allies have sunk billions of dollars of aid into Afghanistan since the invasion to oust the Taliban 18 years ago, but the country remains mired in poverty. Signs of hardship are everywhere, from children begging in the streets to entire families — including children as young as five or six — working at brick kilns in the sweltering heat.
Atiqullah’s family comes from the eastern Nangarhar province, a stronghold for both the Taliban and a Daesh affiliate that has seen heavy fighting in recent years. Brick factory owners travel to the villages and offer loans to cover basic necessities, forcing families to work them off during the summer months in a form of indentured servitude. Workers say a family of 10 can bring in an average of $12-18 a day, depending on their productivity.
Shubham Chaudhuri, who recently completed a three-year stint as the World Bank country director for Afghanistan, said more than half of Afghans live on less than a dollar a day, the amount considered necessary to meet basic needs.
“Even more striking was the fact that almost three quarters of the population was close to that level. So I think the state of poverty in Afghanistan today is that it is deep and it is widespread,” he said.
A UN report released last year said that more than 2 million Afghan children aged 6-14 were engaged in some form of child labor. Laws governing child labor in Afghanistan are poorly enforced, especially in rural areas.
Afghanistan’s economy grew by just 2% last year, the slowest rate in South Asia, held back by the lingering conflict, drought and endemic corruption. The watchdog Transparency International regularly rates Afghanistan among the most corrupt countries on earth. Much of the international aid has ended up in the hands of former warlords who live in gated compounds, cruise around in motorcades and stash their fortunes in the Gulf.
Widespread misery and anger at the country’s elites has added fuel to the conflict and swelled the ranks of the Taliban, who now effectively control around half the country. The insurgents have held several rounds of talks with the United States in recent months, aiming for a deal in which foreign forces would withdraw.
A World Bank report released in this week said a political settlement with the Taliban could boost the economy by encouraging the return of capital and skilled workers from overseas — but only if the security situation improves.
“Rapid growth will only be possible with improved security under a government that remains committed to private sector development, respects the rights of investors, and maintains the gains Afghanistan has achieved over the past two decades toward establishing strong and impartial government institutions,” the World Bank’s current country director, Henry Kerali, was quoted as saying in the report.
Jan Agha, a 65-year-old who works alongside Atiqullah’s family in the brick kilns, has little hope for the future. He’s been working off loans for more than 30 years, 20 of them spent as a refugee in neighboring Pakistan. His four sons have already joined him on the assembly line, and he expects his grandchildren and great-grandchildren to do the same.
“We always think about our future,” he said. “We don’t know how long we will live with economic problems like this, when we will be able to live our own lives, when we will be able to breathe in freedom. Right now we live like slaves.”