New Travel Restrictions Limit Rohingya Access to Healthcare

By Lawi Weng 27 April 2016

RANGOON — Authorities in Arakan State have imposed new restrictions on the Rohingya minority’s access to medical treatment in Rangoon, after local sources reported that many patients did not return to the region after traveling to hospitals in the commercial capital.

Authorities including police, immigration officers, and the border affairs minister hosted a meeting with approximately 40 Rohingya community leaders in the Arakan State capital of Sittwe on Tuesday. Chief regional immigration officer Wai Lwin reportedly informed those at the meeting of the stricter regulations to be imposed on the Muslim minority, who are denied citizenship in Burma.

According to Aung Win, a Rohingya rights activist who participated in the meeting, the new rules state that Rohingya who are sick must now first visit the public hospital in Sittwe for an assessment of their condition; if further treatment is needed, they can apply for permission to travel to Rangoon.

Patients would now be required to obtain a recommendation from the head of the Sittwe hospital in order to make such a trip.

Aung Win estimated that up to 80 percent of those who had previously traveled to Rangoon for medical care did not return to the displaced people’s camps in Arakan State where over 100,000 Rohingya have been confined since ethnoreligious violence broke out in the area in 2012.

“They went to work in Ruili [on the Chinese border], Malaysia and Thailand,” he said.

Before the new restrictions came into effect, community leaders said that the Rohingya had avoided going to hospitals in Sittwe, where they reported experiencing discrimination. The medical care they received, they alleged, was not equal to that provided to the local Buddhist Arakanese population.

Maung Maung Sein, another Rohingya representative present at the meeting, told The Irrawaddy that the new rules would place extra financial strain on those in the camps.

“We need security to travel to the hospital in Sittwe. We have to pay at least 20,000 to 30,000 kyats (US$17 to $26) to rent a car to travel from the camp to the town,” he said, adding that patients would need food and accommodation in order to be able to stay in the hospital away from their homes. Paying for this expense is made particularly difficult by limitations placed on the Rohingyas’ ability to seek employment in the region.

Maung Maung Sein explained that Rohingya who could afford to do so once sought treatment in Rangoon, reportedly after obtaining permission from an immigration officer for the journey; without the correct paperwork, Rohingya attempting to travel outside of the region can be imprisoned.

“There were brokers who could help get recommendations from Immigration. We had to pay a lot of money to get the recommendation,” he said.

Burmese government authorities have allowed some clinics to open in the displaced people’s camps, but challenges regarding staffing and patient access remain ongoing.

Doctors and nurses from the camp hospitals will not be eligible to provide the recommendation needed for travel to Rangoon to seek more advanced treatment.