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Radio Australia: Burma camps struggle to cope with refugee influx

Burma camps struggle to cope with refugee influx

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says a fresh outbreak of violence between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state earlier this month has forced more than 28,000 people to flee their homes.

The ongoing conflict has left dozens dead and seen whole neighbourhoods razed in a spate of arson attacks.

UNHCR's regional spokeswoman, Vivien Tan, says the situation at the camps worsens every day.

"So with the new influx these camps are really getting quite overwhelmed. Supplies are running low, basics running out and basically their needs are getting increasingly desperate," she said.

"Food prices in the area have doubled and there are not enough doctors to treat the sick and wounded."

Thousands from mainly Muslim communities in Rakhine state have streamed towards camps already struggling to cope with the 75,000 people displaced by earlier clashes in June.

Sittwe squalor

The UNHCR says more than 3,000 people have travelled in boats towards Sittwe in hopes of finding shelter at the camps on the coast near the outskirts of the city.

Chris Lewa visited the camps in Sittwe for Refugees International and she told Radio Australia's Asia Pacific they were already squalid before the latest outbreak of violence.

"Most of the population of Sittwe, except one neighbourhood, has basically been displaced now, and are forced to live in rather squalid refugee camps, which mostly are a sea of tents," she said.

She says the Burmese Government has tried to build more permanent structures, but they cannot keep pace with the numbers of refugees flooding in.

"The government, with the aid of international groups and agencies, has already started building some transitional shelter in bamboo, but even these shelters are also very overcrowded - one room allocated to one family, and of course, there're still many people staying in tents." she said.

Ms Lewa says the overcrowding poses health risks.

"Sanitation especially was very unacceptable. For example, one camp, we saw there were only twelve toilets for 2,000 people," she said.

"We found a couple of local clinics set up by the Ministry of Health, but they were empty. We were told that medical staff were visiting only in the morning very briefly, and there was definitely a need for urgent humanitarian assistance, especially in terms of health."

Unrest continues

Human Rights Watch has released satellite images showing what it described as "extensive destruction" in a mainly Rohingya Muslim area of Kyaukpyu - the site of a major pipeline taking gas to China.

Virtually all structures appear to have been wiped from the landscape.

"It's a human tragedy unfolding right now with the Burmese government essentially standing by and doing little to assist," Phil Robertson, deputy director for the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, told Radio Australia's Connect Asia.

Decades-old animosity between Buddhists and minority Rohingya Muslims erupted in June after the apparent rape and murder of an ethnic Rakhine woman sparked a series of revenge attacks.

There are an estimated 800,000 Rohingyas in Burma, but the government sees them as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.

Other Muslims in Rakhine have also been swept up in the latest violence, including the Kaman, one of Burma's officially recognised ethnic groups.

Rakhine government spokesman Win Myaing has indicated that the unrest could continue to flare.

"Some ask me how long the clashes will continue. We do not know. It could go on for about a month or two. It could even be as long as a year or two," he said. (AFP)