Tens of Thousands of Refugees Evacuated as Storm Nears Arakan Coast

By Lawi Weng 13 May 2013

RANGOON—Arakan State authorities and the UN said they are preparing refugees for the arrival of a tropical storm, which is due to hit the Arakan coast on Thursday. Tens of thousands of refugees are vulnerable to the storm’s impact and they are being evacuated to higher ground.

Tropical Cyclone Mahasen is moving through the Bay of Bengal and is expected to hit land south of Chittagong, Bangladesh, on Thursday.

The storm conditions could create “life-threatening conditions for millions of people in northeast India, Bangladesh and Myanmar’s [Arakan State],” the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) warned in an emergency briefing on Sunday.

Burma’s Department of Meteorology and Hydrology said that the maximum speed at the cyclone’s center could reach 60 mph, but added that the storm will not hit Burma directly.

It warned of raging torrents along the Arakan coast and heavy rains in central Burma, in Magwe, Sagaing and Mandalay division, which could cause landslides.

“[O]ccasional squalls with rough sea will be experienced off and along Myanmar Coasts. Surface wind speed in squalls may reach 40-45 mph,” the department said on its website on Monday.

The storm poses a direct threat to about half of the 140,000 people internally displaced persons (IDPs) living in camps in Arakan State, UNOCHA said. About 70,000 refugees in Pauktaw and Myebon townships and in rural Sittwe stay in temporary or makeshift camps located “in low lying coastal areas susceptible to tidal surge,” the UN agency said.

Arakan State government spokesperson Win Myaing said that tens of thousands people were being evacuated from the low-lying IDP camps located off the coast.

“All camps located near the coast are being resettled,” he said. “We are all busy now. We’re working with the humanitarian organizations to evacuate the people.” Win Myaing said did not know how many IDPs in total were being resettled.

The IDPs in Arakan State were displaced during waves of inter-communal violence in June and October last year, when Buddhist majority communities clashed with local Muslim minorities. Many local Muslims call themselves Rohingyas, but they are not recognized as Burmese citizens.

According to official figures, almost 200 villagers were killed and 140,000 people were displaced. Most refugees were Muslims and they were resettled in camps in northern Arakan State and outside of Sittwe.

Aid groups have complained about poor conditions in the Muslim camps, as they are often located on low-lying site vulnerable to flooding. The organizations have also complained that local authorities support the Buddhist majority and therefore block aid for Muslim camps.

An UNOCHA report said that the Arakan State government had activated stage one of its Disaster Reduction Plan, which is focused on helping Sittwe-based IDPs that are vulnerable to winds exceeding 40 and 50 MPH.

The agency said 11 resettlement sites had been found on higher ground near Sittwe where tents could be set up, while housing had been found for 8,000 IDPs. It remained unclear if arrangements had already been made for the 17,000 refugees in Pauktaw Township. On Sunday, UNOCHA stressed that “Safe locations for these IDPs must be found as a matter of priority.”

In Maungdaw and Buthithaung townships, in northern Arakan State, an unknown number of refugees were being resettled by the military and the Nasaka border guard force, the UN agency said.

Kyaw Thu Soe, a local administrator at Kyaukpyu Township, said authorities had moved both Buddhist Arakanese and Muslim refugees to higher ground. “We have evacuated the refugees already,” he said.

Kyaukpyu Township resident Tun Lwin said authorities had informed the community about the coming storm. “They told us to buy more rice and medicine. They also told us if the cyclone comes, we need to run to the hills,” he said, adding that local residents were not too concerned about the storm and expected only heavy rains.

Medicine Sans Frontier (MSF) Holland said in a statement that it is “very concerned” over the storm’s impact on the IDPs. “The consequences of a cyclone could be very severe on these extremely vulnerable communities,” MSF said, adding that its clinics and makeshift shelters had already been destroyed during early monsoon rains.

Five years ago, a cyclone that hit Burma’s densely-populated Irrawaddy delta region in May 2008 killed at least 138,000 people. Relief efforts for the humanitarian disaster were severely slowed after Cyclone Nargis because Burma’s former military regime initially refused offers of international aid.

(Additional reporting by Paul Vrieze)