Camps unable to cope with Kachin refugees
Volume 31, No. 610
January 16 - 22, 2012
REFUGEE camps in Kachin State need to be expanded to meet the growing number of people displaced by fighting in the region, people familiar with the situation say.
Clashes between the Tatmadaw and Kachin Independence Army since June have prompted thousands to flee their homes for refugee camps in Kachin State and China.
At least 66 camps have been set up in government-controlled areas, including Bhamo, Momauk, Mansi, Shwegu, Myitkyina, Waingmaw, Kamaing and Hpakant townships, while others exist in Kachin Independence Controlled-areas and on the Chinese side of the border.
A committee established to oversee camps in Kachin State estimated last week there were about 50,000 refugees in government-controlled areas and the same number in Kachin Independence Controlled-areas, although higher numbers have been reported.
The conflict is now in its eighth month and with no resolution in sight, the refugee camps are unlikely to empty any time soon.
Committee member Daw Khon Ja told The Myanmar Times that two-thirds of the people in the camps she had visited were women and children.
“The numbers of refugees in camps increased in early December, and the capacity of the camps needs to be expanded to meet the additional demand, including shelter, sanitation and food,” she said.
She said camp management committees are trying to meet basic needs while also arranging psychosocial support and livelihood activities. Most children in the camps have been able to continue their schooling with the help of volunteer teachers. “I feel so blessed seeing children go about their daily routine, attending open-air schools in the camp compounds.
“It is not like their lives are back to normal … but we should try as much as we can. Ultimately people need to go back their farming or other work. They need to continue their livelihoods. For the time being, some camps have started livelihood program. So camps also need donations of farming tools.”
A spokesperson from one of 24 camps established in Myitkyina township said the increase in refugee numbers was stretching the resources of the camp management bodies.
“Most camps are at their limit but they need to expand their activities and resources to avoid problems that may arise from overcrowding,” she said.
“Personally I wish all nationalities would come and contribute support. It concerns not only Kachin but all people living in Myanmar. It is beneficial to get support from the UN or NGOs but receiving it from the hands of local people has the added benefits of building unity, peace and development of the region,” she said.
Lack of material resources is just one issue camp management committees face.
“We don’t know much about camp’s management,” said U Nangzing Tu Ja, a spokesperson for the largest camp in Bhamo, at Roberts Memorial Church in Nyaung Pyin quarter. “We are struggling to meet the standard required but it is very hard unless we get technical support. We thought this situation would be temporary but now we need to improve our camp management because the number of displaced people is growing daily.
“We haven’t received any formal training on camp management. We just use our experience and do the service we can with loving kindness and humanitarian spirit,” he said.
However, in at least one camp government officials consulted with displaced families to compile an inventory of losses caused by the conflict.
“They seem likely to give land or pay the value of [damaged] property to those refugees but it’s not certain because there was no official announcement. They also asked families where they preferred to live,” said Reverend Naw Awng, the head of a Baptist-run camp in Momauk. “Most people in the camps want to go back their homes and start their lives again … [but] there has been no official announcement about going home because some places are still unstable.”
He said the number of people in the camp had continue to grow, rising from 755 on December 14 to 831 on January 11.
“We are now struggling to meet their needs. Like most camps we need shelters, toilets and drinking water.”
Camp management committees are also negotiating with authorities in China to bring back displaced people who have crossed the border, said Daw Khon Ja.
“Some camps opened in the China area when people were fleeing the fighting. But they are struggling under the strict laws in China, such as the ban on using firewood,” she said.
“They also need to come back to restart their livelihoods. They shouldn’t wait for donors to help them, they need to stand on their own two feet again.”
Daw Khon Ja said it was difficult for displaced people to return home before a ceasefire was in place and urged the government to start political negotiations with the KIO.