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Cyclone Mocha: New restrictions hamper critical aid for Rohingya refugees

July 27th, 2023  •  Author:   Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières  •  4 minute read
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MSF is calling on military authorities in Myanmar to lift restrictions that impede urgent humanitarian action preventing further harm, disease outbreaks, and loss of life.

When category-five Cyclone Mocha made landfall in Myanmar in May, it was the largest to hit Rakhine state and the northwest of the country in over a decade. The cyclone left large-scale destruction and impacted an estimated 670,000 people, including thousands of Rohingya refugees living in displacement camps.

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams working in the camp are prioritizing the prevention of waterborne diseases, including by distributing drinking water to 9,000 people per week and repairing destroyed latrines and water systems. MSF has also gradually resumed activities at mobile clinics, and is conducting emergency medical referrals for patients in need of specialized treatment.

“About 85 percent of [one of the camps] is in ruins after Cyclone Mocha wreaked havoc here. All hut-like houses are destroyed. People who live in houses like these are in dire need of emergency aid since they have no place to stay,” said Daw Nu, an MSF community health worker living in Sittwe.

Needs escalate atop existing hardships for Rohingya refugees

Those most severely impacted by Cyclone Mocha are communities already displaced by conflict, who often live in camps, as well as people living in low-lying areas and people living in remote areas, far from where assistance efforts have been concentrated.

The most urgent, unmet needs include shelter, reconstruction of destroyed or damaged water and sanitation infrastructure, safe drinking water, food, and access to health care.

This destruction comes on top of existing hardships, particularly for Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine communities displaced by conflict, who already heavily rely on humanitarian assistance. Rohingya people specifically face severe restrictions on all aspects of life, limiting their freedom of movement and access to health care, livelihood opportunities, and education.

Restrictions delay cyclone response

Initial response efforts were positive. The military authorities and armed groups such as the Arakan Army led efforts to clean debris from roads, and telecommunications and electricity were restored.

However, the current response is far from what is required. More than two months after Cyclone Mocha hit,  humanitarian relief is at a standstill despite the magnitude of the disaster. Restrictions imposed by military authorities permit only regular pre-cyclone humanitarian activities and prohibit any scale-up of a cyclone-specific response. This includes restrictions on large-scale distributions of relief items like food supplies, hygiene kits, and much-needed bamboo and tarps for building and repairing shelters.

In addition, travel authorization was temporarily suspended for Rakhine state between June 8-11. While MSF’s travel authorization was revoked, we were unable to open any of our 25 primary health care clinics, interrupting the provision of life-saving medical humanitarian assistance covering hundreds of thousands across northern and central Rakhine state.

Activities were officially permitted to resume on June 11, but only those already agreed upon before the cyclone. Authorities did not grant permission for additional response efforts based on the needs created by the cyclone.

Also among the restrictions is a requirement to hand over relief items to the military authorities who will manage distribution. This requirement jeopardizes the neutrality of humanitarian assistance, and affects community trust in humanitarian organizations, especially in an area of conflict like Rakhine. It also goes against the humanitarian principles of impartiality, neutrality, and independence, which MSF and other organizations abide by.

The current situation must not become the new normal

MSF is concerned that the dire living conditions the cyclone has caused, the unnecessary restrictions that actively sustain these unacceptable conditions, and the lack of public attention being drawn to this situation are gradually becoming the new normal in Rakhine.

The military authorities and other parties to the conflict have the responsibility to take care of people impacted by Cyclone Mocha. As such, the military authorities should lift the current restrictions and facilitate unimpeded passage of medical and humanitarian relief items to people in need, in a manner that does not compromise our principles of impartiality and neutrality.

MSF has teams based in seven townships across Rakhine state, including some of the worst affected areas of Sittwe, Maungdaw, Rathedaung, Buthidaung, and Pauktaw where over 550 staff are carrying out our regular medical humanitarian activities.  

MSF has been working in Myanmar since 1992, supporting long-term health care programs focused on tuberculosis, HIV, hepatitis C, malaria and primary health care initiatives. Today, over 1,200 international and national staff work closely together to provide high-quality care and treatment through a network of health facilities and mobile clinics. We continue to care for HIV, tuberculosis, and hepatitis C patients, provide basic health care along with reproductive and sexual health care services, and respond to medical emergencies. 


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