Recently Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) investigated and reported on human rights violations and humanitarian needs in Kachin state. PHR’s report, Under Siege in Kachin State, Burma, called for the government of Burma to permit humanitarian organisations access to Kachin state, where tens of thousands of internally displaced peoples (IDPs) are running low on food and relief supplies.
Recently, the UN was allowed to deliver blankets and pillows to IDPs in Laiza, a town controlled by the Kachin Independence Organisation. This is the first time the Burmese central government has allowed the UN to visit a conflict area. While the shipment of blankets is much-needed in the winter period, more needs to be done before the IDPs’ basic needs will be met – a report by the UN Organisation for the Coordinatioon of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) last week said that the “number of displaced and [their] needs are rapidly increasing”.
During our investigation, PHR found children living in Je Yang camp suffering from severe malnutrition. Multiple families were crowded into poorly-insulated bamboo structures that afforded inadequate warmth and privacy. There were not enough latrines or water sources for the nearly 4,000 people living in the camp, and according to medical professionals there, diarrhea and skin infections – diseases caused by poor sanitation – were the two most common conditions in clinics.
Because Kachin state has not seen this kind of displacement in nearly 20 years, most camp staff were volunteers or had been conscripted from other organisations and had very little experience or training in managing IDP camps. Food shortages may occur over the next year, with people having fled their homes to escape fighting before planting rice.
Although the move by the central government to grant access for the UN is significant, it only marks the beginning of fulfilling its responsibilities to citizens in Kachin state. The humanitarian situation facing IDPs is still at a crisis level. Fifty thousand IDPs are now scattered across Kachin and northern Shan states, and so far the UN only has access to those in Laiza town and areas controlled by the central government. Worse yet, the number of IDPs is growing and will continue to grow as long as the Burmese army continues to attack civilians. The central government must immediately cease its attacks in Kachin state and must also tackle the food security crisis that will come from poor harvests due to fighting.
The international community, including the UN, should recognise that one relief convoy to Laiza is not a sufficient solution to the humanitarian problems in Kachin state, as acknowledged in the UNOCHA report that stated that “more shelters remain needed as most of the camps are now over-crowded due to the increasing number of IDPs”.
The UN should continue to monitor the situation and apply pressure to the Burmese government. The Burmese government must recognise that civilians in Kachin state are in need of help, and that it is the responsibility of the state to address these needs. It should cooperate with humanitarian organisations to make this happen.
Bill Davis is the director of the Burma Project at Physicians for Human Rights.