RANGOON — More than 800,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Burma are facing a variety of critical humanitarian needs, according to Unicef, which found that one in three IDPs are children vulnerable to malnutrition and a host of knock-on effects.
Unicef is hosting a two-day National Conference on Faith for Children in Burma, where the UN body on Wednesday highlighted the situation of IDPs in Arakan and Kachin states, regions where conflict has displaced some 140,000 and 90,000 people, respectively
Buddhist, Christian, Islamic and Hindu leaders were among more than 100 attendees of the two-day conference, which will conclude in Rangoon on Thursday.
Penelope Campbell, who heads the child survival and development unit of Unicef, told The Irrawaddy on the sidelines of the conference that people in Arakan State were suffering the most extreme hardship, after religious conflict between Buddhists and Muslims in the region pushed many people out of their homes and into temporary camps where conditions are poor.
About 1.4 percent of Burma’s entire population, some 834,000 people, have been displaced as a result of ethnic or religious conflict over the years, according to Unicef.
In Arakan State, members of both the ethnic Arakanese and the minority Muslim Rohingya communities have been displaced, though Rohingya have suffered the brunt of the upheaval. Of 138,000 IDPs in the state, 115,000 have nutritional needs, according to Unicef. Among the IDP population in Kachin State, 20,000 people face similar dietary deficiencies.
Liza Barrie, chief of the Civil Society Partnerships Program at Unicef, said children faced the greatest risks, with far-reaching implications.
“Malnutrition in early childhood has long-lasting impacts, not only for a child, but on a nation’s economic performance,” Barrie said. “The first 1,000 days between the start of pregnancy and a child’s second birthday is a critical window of opportunity to prevent the irreversible and life-long damage caused by malnutrition, including a condition called stunting.”
Campbell said a key factor contributing to the problem was a lack of opportunities to make a living among displaced populations.
“People’s ability to obtain their livelihoods through any means, whether it be farming or other means, has been impacted by being displaced and living in camps. That is one factor. Malnutrition and poverty have resulted,” she explained, adding that in northern Arakan State, the isolation of some villages exacerbated the humanitarian woes of vulnerable populations, such as those in Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships.
The situation in Kachin State is relatively less severe in terms of malnutrition, Campbell said, while adding that access to populations, and thus reliable data, remained difficult.
“I think a key solution is to make sure these children have access to good food, and this goes for the mother as well, because as we highlighted earlier, from the moment of conception and especially that first three months of the pregnancy, it is really, really important for the mother to be well nourished. Otherwise it has irreversible development on the fetus,” she said, adding that access to education and health services were also essential in allowing IDPs to “transform their situation.”
Nearly 190,000 children in Arakan State lack access to education, and almost 60,000 are similarly disenfranchised in Kachin State.
Staff from UN agencies and several NGOs left Arakan State last week, citing safety concerns after their offices were attacked by Buddhist mobs. The medical aid organization Medecins Sans Frontieres was forced to shutter its operations in late February. Amid the dwindling humanitarian presence, aid groups have said IDPs in the state will face food and water shortages in the coming weeks.
“My concerns over the last week or two, and the UN’s concerns, is ensuring that the affected populations have access to basic services, that’s vital, and that the security is in place to enable the provision of those services without fears or insecurity,” Campbell said of the situation in Arakan State.
Campbell said one in 10 children under the age of 5 who are living in IDP camps around the Arakan State capital of Sittwe is severely or moderately malnourished.
Maung Maung Htay, the deputy religious affairs minister, attended this week’s conference, where he said the gathering would allow a variety of faith leaders to share their experiences.
“We will learn from them [international leaders] how to help children in our country. We have many things to learn from them,” he said, adding that a major goal was to reduce Burma’s infant mortality rate.
Barrie of Unicef said in a keynote speech that religion could have a profound influence on children’s development and socialization, and had the potential to reinforce protective influences and promote resilience.
She urged religious communities to make sure their mosques, synagogues or churches were “a safe and supportive place for children.”
The conference was organized by Unicef and the local NGO Ratana Metta Organization.