EU official warns of threats against aid workers amid Rohingya crisis

Androulla Kaminara, a director at the European Commission's humanitarian arm, ECHO. Photo by: European Union

BRUSSELS — Aid workers in Myanmar are facing both access and safety concerns, a senior EU aid official said Monday, warning the Rohingya refugee crisis had passed a “tipping point.”

Addressing a European parliamentary committee, Androulla Kaminara, a director at the European Commission’s humanitarian arm, ECHO, warned of hate speech and “a number of attacks” against aid workers, as well as reports of local businesses being told not to provide assistance.

“We have reports of some local business people in Rakhine [state] being told not to provide trucks to the humanitarians, not to provide things that might be needed on the ground,” Kaminara said.

Her warnings come before a pledging conference for the Rohingya crisis to be co-hosted by the European Union in Geneva on October 23, as funding to meet the humanitarian needs arising from the crisis is falling short by several hundred million dollars, she said.

Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s government in Myanmar has faced international opprobrium for an army offensive in North Rakhine, which it says is designed to end an insurgency. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has decried the operation as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” against the Rohingya Muslim minority.

Kaminara said there are about 1.2 million people in need of assistance on the Bangladesh side of the border: 300,000 who were there before the latest round of violence, about 515,000 who have arrived since August, and 300,000 from Bangladeshi host communities who are supporting the refugees.

The exodus has “passed the tipping point”, Kaminara said, adding that at the current rate, within two or three months, “potentially there will be no more Rohingya in Rakhine.”

“All analyses show that there will be an acceleration of the exodus and not the other way around,” she said.

Echoing concerns from counterparts in the United States, Kaminara said aid workers’ movements were severely restricted, limiting their ability to support refugees.

“We have no access and therefore we can only go with the very little information that we have — things could be dramatically worse [than we think],” Kaminara said. “We fear that even the people that we were helping in the past, we don’t know where they are, we don’t know the conditions, and the bar was very, very low … the [internally displaced persons] camps were barely existing.”

Referring to concerns about the security of aid professionals working to support the Rohingya, she said: “We fear that even if tomorrow we were told, ‘go back in and you can have access to the people that you were delivering [to] in the past’ — which is what we’re hoping for — with such hate speech, it would be very, very difficult and very dangerous for the humanitarians to go into some areas.”

Kaminara said that 10 days earlier members of the Myanmar government took EU diplomats on a tour of North Rakhine, where they saw burning villages, but without independent interpreters.

“The ministers that accompanied the ambassadors were acting as translators,” Kaminara said, “and of course it was a very controlled mission.”

The government has allowed the International Committee of the Red Cross to deliver some food in North Rakhine, she added, but “we cannot verify to which population this food is being delivered.”

Kaminara said another concern for organizations on the ground in Bangladesh, including the International Organization for Migration and the U.N. Refugee Agency, is identifying new arrivals to give them a chance of one day returning home.

“One of the biggest challenges is to register these people when they come over [the border] in a way that identifies them as somebody that used to live or have a residence in Myanmar, in order to see if there’s any possibility of them going back,” she said.

The pledging conference in Geneva on October 23 will be co-hosted by the UN, EU, and “potentially a non-EU donor” to rally humanitarian assistance for Rohingya refugees fleeing the violence, Kaminara said.

Asked which non-EU country would take part, she answered: “Potentially Kuwait. The discussions and the logistics of the meeting on October 23 have not yet been finalized, but that was the latest information we had on Friday [October 6].”

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has called for $434 million to respond to the crisis, but Kaminara told the parliamentary committee that only about one-quarter of those needs were currently funded.

The Geneva conference, she said, would “call for additional funds from other countries in order to address these unmet needs.”

The European Commission announced 3 million euros ($3.5 million) in humanitarian aid in September, on the back of 12 million euros ($14.1 million) announced in May.

Kaminara said: “We are looking to be able to find additional funds — it’s not clear yet how much — to announce during that pledging conference.”

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About the author

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    Vince Chadwick

    Vince Chadwick is the Brussels Correspondent for Devex. He covers the EU institutions, member states, and European civil society. A law graduate from Melbourne, Australia, he was social affairs reporter for The Age newspaper, before moving to Europe in 2013. He covered breaking news, the arts and public policy across the continent, including as a reporter and editor at POLITICO Europe.