UN agencies still denied access to cyclone-hit areas, hindering assessment and aid efforts

Myanmar’s military junta continues to deny United Nations agencies access to areas hit by Cyclone Mocha, blocking their efforts to make needs assessments and deliver aid to survivors.

Hundreds are still missing four days after the storm slammed into the Rakhine State coast at speeds of up to 130 miles per hour on Sunday, tearing down houses, communication towers and bridges. Many are feared dead.

With a population of more than three million, Rakhine State is also home to hundreds of thousands of persecuted Rohingya Muslims, including more than 140,000 confined for more than a decade to camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Reliant on rations and without freedom of movement, most live in bamboo huts that offered scant protection against the strong winds and storm surges that reportedly caused extensive damage to around 90% of the state capital Sittwe.

Despite this known vulnerability, camp administrators and other local sources told Myanmar Now that no meaningful efforts were undertaken by the junta or international aid agencies to evacuate the IDPs from the camps or prepare them for the severity of the cyclone.

At a press briefing held on Wednesday, UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator Ramanathan Balakrishnan said that UN agencies and their partners were still waiting for a green light from military authorities to begin assessing needs in cyclone-hit areas of Rakhine State, including its IDP camps.

“Partners continued observations in various locations in Sittwe and other townships and are ready to start coordinated field missions to gauge the full scope of the humanitarian situation, as soon as access is granted,” he said.

He added that the agencies are still unable to get a full picture of the damage outside of Sittwe due to a lack of electricity in certain areas, as well as “physical and bureaucratic access constraints.”

“To deliver, we will need access to affected people, relaxation of travel authorization by the authorities, [and] require expedited customs clearances for commodities,” he said.

The UN’s Children’s Fund, UNICEF, echoed Balakrishnan’s concerns in its situation update on Wednesday, saying that it is still waiting for travel authorization.

Pierre Peron, a spokesperson for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), also told Reuters on Wednesday that requests for “unrestricted” access to affected communities were still pending.

UNOCHA said urgent needs for the cyclone victims include shelter, clean water, food, and healthcare services. 

Since the storm made landfall on Sunday, junta mouthpieces have published a number of articles claiming that the military has been providing food and other necessities to the victims.

Sittwe residents draw water from a lake in the wake of Cyclone Mocha’s devastation (Myanmar Now)

In Sittwe, however, one resident told Myanmar Now that no substantial aid had arrived as of Wednesday. He also noted that locals’ efforts to rebuild have been hampered by the high cost of building materials.

“Our main need is shelter, but no group has given us anything to build with yet. Everyone is struggling to deal with their own problems, so they can’t help each other,” he said, explaining why removing fallen trees also remains a problem.

On Thursday, junta-controlled state media put the total number of casualties in the country at 48. However, it made no mention of the deaths of Rohingya IDPs.

According the regime’s reports, junta chief Min Aung Hlaing visited Sittwe on Monday and Bagan on Tuesday to help coordinate relief efforts.

On Tuesday, Noriko Takagi, the country representative of the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, met with two junta ministers to present her credentials and discuss the need for “collaboration” between UN agencies and Myanmar to provide relief to the cyclone-affected population.

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