Myanmar: Cross-line aid mission reaches isolated communities in Kachin
It is early morning in Myitkyina—a town in the far north of Myanmar’s Kachin state. The first light of dawn is breaking as final preparations are made for the cross-line mission into the areas beyond Government control in Kachin.
Eleven trucks loaded with pulses, cooking oil, salt, nutrition supplements and cooking stoves sit idling as aid workers from five UN agencies and two NGOs prepare for the 100-kilometre journey north to the town of Laiza, near the border with China.
The route between Myitkyina and Laiza is eerily quiet as traffic fades. The modest houses, schools and stores on both sides of the road stand empty. Approximately 100,000 people were displaced by the conflict that broke out between the Government of Myanmar and the Kachin Independence Army in June 2011.
More than 50,000 of those people are living in the areas beyond Government control, where access for international organizations is gradually opening up, but remains limited.
Protracted displacement affects displaced and host families
Peace negotiations between the parties are ongoing. But the situation for families displaced in the areas beyond Government control is becoming increasingly difficult. Many have now been away from their homes for almost three years, with no idea of when they can return and begin rebuilding their lives.
Sporadic fighting continues to force communities from their villages. In November 2013, more than 4,000 people were forced to flee following renewed violence in Kachin.
The protracted situation is also straining the resources of host communities and local aid groups. The support of international groups is vital.
"Fuel-efficient cooking stoves are part of our social-cohesion programme," says Stean Tshiband, the Early Recovery Coordinator for the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in Kachin state.
"Competition for scarce resources like firewood, that people rely on for cooking, could be a source of tension between those displaced and the local community. By minimizing the amount of wood needed for cooking, the stoves help to reduce the likelihood of tensions arising between communities.”
Other issues, including the risk of mines in some areas, also limit the availability of firewood.
Local NGOs meet displaced people’s needs
These missions help to lighten the load that has been placed on local NGOs. The UN and its partners are keen to highlight the major role of local partners, many of which have provided development and humanitarian support in Kachin for years.
The Danish Refugee Council (DRC) joined the mission in order to assess its Kachin shelter-and-protection programmes. These projects are being implemented in partnership with the local NGO Karuna Myanmar Social Services and the Kachin Women’s Association in displacement camps in and around Laiza.
"Local NGOs have a permanent presence in Laiza and are therefore able to provide ongoing assistance," explains Chiara Carli, DRC's Programme Manager in Kachin. "Housing for IDPs [internally displaced persons] is a key concern. [The] displacement has become more protracted, and the housing that was built over two years ago is in need of repair and maintenance ahead of the monsoon season in May."
"The cross-line missions are an important opportunity for us, as international staff, to meet with local NGOs implementing projects in the field, and to assess needs in shelter and other areas," she adds.
Cramped and crumbling living conditions
Many IDP shelters are overcrowded, with extended families living together in cramped and difficult conditions.
"The living conditions are difficult," says one woman in the Woi Chai camp, in Laiza. Here, some of the displaced families are living in small, basic shelter units, constructed of plywood in a former garage building.
"There is little space and the ceilings are low, so it gets very hot," she explains. Her family of seven has lived in this small unit for more than two years.
Between 20,000 to 25,000 people in the areas beyond Government control live in sub-standard shelters, have no shelter or live in cramped units, such as the women in Woi Chai, according to the Shelter Cluster. An estimated 2,500 shelters need to be repaired or upgraded in 2014 after almost three years’ use.
Sustained access to all of Kachin is needed
Since September 2013, international humanitarian organizations in Myanmar have had more regular access to the areas beyond Government control. These cross-line missions have allowed international aid workers to deliver assistance to tens of thousands of people, and to better support local response efforts.
"It is a very welcome development that the Government is authorizing increasingly regular cross-line access to these areas,” says Mark Cutts, OCHA’s Head of Office in Myanmar. “Tens of thousands of displaced people in these areas require humanitarian aid."
"We are continuing to consult closely with the Government on ways of expanding this access further, as many activities require more sustained support to ensure vulnerable people get the quality of care, services and assistance they need."
As the latest cross-line mission leaves Laiza for the return trip to Myitkyina, it is clear that more needs to be done to assist vulnerable conflict-affected people throughout Kachin.