SOME 60,000 children are “trapped” in appalling conditions in refugee camps in central Rakhine State of Burma (Myanmar), the United Nations Children’s Fund said this week, their plight overshadowed by the hundreds of thousands of refugees in Bangladesh.
UNICEF spokesperson Marixie Mercado said that while the “eyes of the world” were on Cox’s Bazar – the site to where more than 650,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled since August 25 last year – there was a massive population of “nearly forgotten” children in the central Rakhine camps.
“The Rohingya children who do remain in rural areas are almost totally isolated. We hear of high levels of toxic fear in children from both Rohingya and Rakhine communities,” said Mercado, who visited Burma for almost a month in December and January.
While UNICEF had been treating some 4,800 children for severe, acute malnutrition prior to the outbreak of violence in Rakhine on Aug 25, its humanitarian workers were now unable to access the area. The agency’s medical centres had been looted and destroyed.
Around 100 children had been separated from their families and were unable to access northern Rakhine to be reunited, she said, reflecting harsh restrictions on freedom of movement in the region.
The agency’s observations reflect an Amnesty International report from November, which said that the Burmese government was presiding over apartheid and an “open-air prison” in the Rakhine.
Amnesty said Burma was responsible for a range of human rights violations against Rohingya Muslims still residing in Rakhine State, including denial of the right to Burmese nationality, “extreme restrictions” on freedom of movement, “wide-ranging” violations of economic and social rights, as well as “systemic social and political exclusion”.
Muslim communities in the Rakhine are living in squalor and an “acute level of fear” said Mercado on Tuesday. “The first thing you notice when you reach the camps is the stomach-churning stench. Parts of the camps are literally cesspools. Shelters teeter on stilts above garbage and excrement. Children walk barefoot through the muck.”
“Rohingya children need a political solution to the issue of legal identity and citizenship. In the interim they need to be recognised first and foremost as children,” she said, adding that UNICEF was ready to assist the implementation of the recommendations from the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State.
Known as the Annan Commission’s report, it urges that Burma extend full citizenship, rights and equality before the law towards Rohingya Muslims.
“UNICEF stands ready to support this crucial work. And we call on the global community, especially regional organisations and countries, to leverage their influence so children have better lives today and a future they can look forward to,” said Mercado.
With the Burmese government continuing to severely restrict which foreign organisations are able to operate in the Rakhine, UNICEF again reiterated the need to provide unlimited access for humanitarian efforts.