Muslim refugees in Burma will be forced to remain in squalid emergency camps for at least 12 months, warns minister Alan Duncan


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The Independent Online

A British minister who visited tens of thousands of Muslim refugees in Burma said he believes they will be forced to remain in squalid emergency camps for at least another 12 months as there is no quick-fix solution to the crisis.

After a visit to camps in western Burma where up to 140,000 Rohingya refugees are living in miserable conditions, Alan Duncan said the crisis was the result of deep-rooted cultural enmity between two distinct communities.

"My reading of the depth of the problem is that this is not a situation that will suddenly be better if a politician says one thing or another," he told The Independent, speaking from Burma. "There is such enmity and fear."

Mr Duncan, a minister in the department of international relations, said the situation in the tent camps of the Rohingya refugees were demonstrably worse than the semi-permanent structures occupied by a few thousand Buddhist refugees who were also forced from their homes. He said the arrival of monsoon rains had made the situation worse.

He said be believed the provincial authorities in Burma's Rakhine state were trying to address the situation but that there was no easy short-term solution as relocation and "rehabilitation" of the Muslim communities would take a long time.

Asked if he believed the Rohingya would be there 12 months from now, he said "I think, yes. I think it will take time to relocate...It will take time to relocate and rehabilitate in a sustainable way."

Last year, tens of thousands of refugees set up emergency camps on the outskirts of the city of Sittwe after two waves of violence left at least 200 people dead and hundreds of homes and business destroyed. The local Buddhist community claims the Rohingya are illegal migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh but the Rohingya claim they have lived in the region for centuries.

The government of President Thein Sein has been criticised to failing to do more to stop the violence and to provide citizenship at least to those Rohingya who can prove they were born in Burma. The state authorities have announced plans to limit Muslim families to two children.

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has also been condemned for failing to speak out more clearly against the violence. The official position of her National League for Democracy party is that the Rohingya are "Bengalis" and not recognised by the Burmese constitution.

Last year, the UK along with other EU countries and the US, lifted almost all of a series of sanctions that had been imposed on Burma. The decision was taken to reward the steps Then Sein had taken in moving the country towards democracy and to enable Western businesses to take advantage of a resource rich market that had been cut off from the West for two decades.

But some campaigners felt the West was moving too quickly. They pointed out that scores of political prisoners remain behind bars, that clashes between the military and ethnic groups continue and that sectarian violence is devastating many communities.

The British government says it is one of the biggest bilateral donors to Burma and that it will spend more than £180m between 2011 and 2015. The government says this money is being targeted on health, education and wealth creation, as well as humanitarian aid.

In total, the UK is spending £6.4m in Rakhine state. Mr Duncan's department claimed it had helped 80,000 people secure access to safe drinking water, helped children under the age of five who were suffering from severe malnutrition and given hygiene kits 40,000 people.

Mr Duncan, who met Ms Suu Kyi and senior government ministers, said he believed it was important that one of the longer-term solutions was to held develop the local economy and to boost livelihoods. "If you drawn the swamp of economic grievance you will help reduce unrest," he claimed.

Meanwhile, Nora Rowley, a US doctor and human rights activist who has worked with the Rohingya over a number of years and who also visited the camps earlier this year, this week issued her own report warning that the "worst is yet to come".

Among a number of recommendations in her report, she urged the international community to establish an independent investigation into the violence of last year and direct the UN's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to take the lead.

She also said the international community should "tie economic aid and investment in Burma to allowing unfettered access to areas of violence for human rights investigators, journalists, and humanitarian aid workers".

She added: "Until the Burmese government has established full accountability for security forces and has undertaken significant steps toward structural reforms, no security assistance should be provided."

David Mathieson of Human Rights Watch, said the British government should push Burma to overturn the two-child ordinance, halt the operations of a feared militia that is active in the area and push for an end to the spread of hate speech aimed at minorities.

“The UK authorities should be speaking out strong on these issues,” he said. “Despite all the attention and the genuinely outraged words from a range of senior diplomats and aid workers, the Burmese authorities and local community leaders seem resolutely obtuse to extending basic human rights to Rohingya and other Muslims.”