BANGKOK (AlertNet) – Close to 50,000 people displaced by conflict in northern Myanmar are spending a second winter in dire conditions that may worsen if international aid agencies and donors cannot find a way of reaching them soon, a local aid worker says.
The displaced - ethnic Kachins - who fled their homes when fighting between army troops and Kachin rebels flared up in June 2011, are scattered in 17 camps along the Myanmar-China border in rebel-held territory. The United Nations has not been allowed to reach them for several months.
What little assistance they have been receiving indirectly from the United Nations and other aid agencies through local non-governmental organisations ran out at the start of December, said La Rip, coordinator of a local aid group, the Relief Action Network for IDPs and Refugees (RANIR).
RANIR was set up after the June clashes. As the main coordinating body for assistance to the area, it is one of the few organisations to have access to the displaced.
"This is a time of great need for the displaced. There is no food security," La Rip told AlertNet by phone from Laiza, a town near the border.
"Some of the camps are located on the slopes of hills where there's snow in winter and many of people don't have warm clothes. We're also facing a shortage of medicine," he added.
La Rip said many people had been living in camps for over a year, and have lost their livelihoods. Many were facing financial problems, he said.
Aid agencies and rights groups estimate that about 75,000 people have been displaced in Kachin and northern Shan states since a 17-year-old ceasefire between the military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) broke down in 2011 over long-standing grievances.
Myanmar's reformist government, which took power in March 2011 after half a century of military rule, has reached ceasefire agreements with about a dozen groups but talks with the KIA and its political leaders have yet to bear fruit.
About a third of Myanmar's 60 million people belong to ethnic minorities and many of them resent what they see as domination by the majority Burman community.
In early December, Valerie Amos, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, visited Kachin State and called on the Myanmar government to allow aid agencies to provide "desperately needed" relief to the displaced in KIA-control areas.
"The U.N. has not been allowed access to provide badly needed assistance to some 39,000 people in areas outside the government's control since July 2012," Amos said.
La Rip said recent clashes have forced more people to flee and that the number of displaced have swelled to almost 50,000. Many are women and children.
RANIR conducted a survey in November of some 800 displaced children in Laiza who are between 3 and 5 years and found almost one out of five was deemed to be at severe risk of malnutrition, he said.
"We are getting some help but they tend to be for a month or 15 days only so it's mainly short-term and not sustainable," La Rip said.
He appealed to international donors to find alternative means of providing assistance to the displaced instead of going through the Myanmar government.
"If the government is not allowing them to access these people, I'd like to ask that they provide aid via civil society organisations in Kachin or cross-border through local community-based groups who've been helping the displaced for the past 18 months," he said.
The European Commission announced on Friday new humanitarian aid worth 5.5 million euros for the Kachin displaced as well as those affected by sectarian violence in Rakhine State in western Myanmar.
The aid will be channelled through international NGOs, the Red Cross movement or U.N. agencies, the announcement said.