UN Cannot Reach 25,000 Kachin Refugees

By Seamus Martov 17 August 2012

KACHIN STATE — Despite the best efforts of the United Nations and its various agencies in Burma, the world body’s relief operations are unable to reach more than one third of the estimated 65,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) uprooted in Kachin State.

Responding to a series of questions from The Irrawaddy, Aye Win, the UN’s chief information officer for Burma, revealed this week that his organization is very concerned about the plight of an estimated 25,000 IDPs in Kachin State who he says “have not been reached by regular UN supplies.”

Although reaching many of the temporary camps located in remote mountainous parts of the state’s east is logistically extremely difficult, local aid workers say that Burmese government hostility remains the primary reason why the UN is unable to access so many people in need.

Upon the completion a four-day visit to Burma last week, John Ging, director of operations for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), issued a public plea calling on the Burmese authorities to allow UN agencies greater access to IDPs in both Kachin and Arakan states.

In a statement released on Aug. 9, Ging contrasted the ongoing reforms which have taken place under President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government with the humanitarian and political crises which are currently taking place in Burma’s far north and far west.

“On the one hand, we see significant progress resulting from the democratization, peace building and economic development processes, while on the other hand, conflict and communal tensions have the potential to undermine stability and generate significant humanitarian needs,” he said .

Ging’s stated concern for the plight of displaced Kachin families has been welcomed by local aid workers operating in rebel-controlled territory who have repeatedly warned that the major humanitarian crisis in the area could deteriorate drastically if displaced people are denied assistance.

From late March to June, teams from the UN’s World Food Program, UNOCHA , UNICEF and the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNCHR) made a series of visits to IDP camps around Mai Ja Yang—the second largest town controlled by the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO).

Yet the UN has not been able to visit any of the camps located at Laiza, the de facto capital of the KIO, which is home to the largest number of IDPs in the state. A small UN team did visit Laiza late last year but promised follow-up visits have yet to take place because of government restrictions.

UN operations in parts of Kachin State not controlled by the government have been significantly reduced since mid-June when six aid workers for the world body were arrested while performing relief work in western Burma’s Arakan State.

In addition, eight local staff members from other NGOs were arrested under similar circumstances. At least five of these are believed to be from Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF). All of those detained appear to be citizens of Burma.

Local Burmese staff working for the UN in Burma may not enjoy the same full diplomatic protection of their international colleagues yet should in theory still benefit from some security courtesy of various international treaties. During former junta chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe’s regime local UN staff were frequently detained under what were commonly accepted as trumped-up charges.

During a trip to Burma from July 30 to Aug. 4, UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Burma Tomás Ojea Quintana met with the six jailed UN workers. According to a statement released after his visit, the six are being held in Buthidaung Prison in Arakan State and the notorious Insein Prison in Rangoon.

“I am of the view that the charges against them are unfounded and that their due process rights have been denied,” said Quintana.

While both the names and ethnic background of the various jailed workers remain unknown, their plight remains a glaring example of the continued difficulties faced by the UN and other international organizations operating in Burma.

The aid workers arrest and detention also stands in sharp contrast to the optimistic statements emanating from various NGOs that entered Burma in the years following Cyclone Nargis which describe the new operating space that has opened.