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UMCOR supports the displaced in Myanmar

A UMNS Report
By Linda Bloom*
June 18, 2009

This map marks the location of displaced villages and internally displaced persons camps in Myanmar and refugee camps in bordering Thailand. A UMNS image courtesy of the Thailand Burma Border Consortium.

Since 2006, the number of people seeking refuge at the Ee Htu Hta camp in the eastern part of Myanmar, also known as Burma, has grown from 600 to nearly 4,200.

The goal is keeping them alive.

That’s why the United Methodist Committee on Relief, working through Church World Service, has committed $150,000 to help the Thailand Burma Border Consortium provide rice and salt to camp residents, including 560 children under the age of 5. Church World Service is one of the 12 nongovernmental organizations that form the consortium.

Andrew Fuys, a Church World Service program officer, said the project allows the camp to maintain a minimal level of nutrition. “It’s really making sure that people who are there have access to very basic needs,” he told United Methodist News Service in a June 17 interview.

The United Nations is marking World Refugee Day on June 20, drawing attention to the 42 million uprooted people around the world. For the vast majority, every day is a struggle to survive as they seek the basics of life – shelter, food, clean water, health care and protection from conflict.

More than half of those uprooted people – about 26 million at the end of 2008, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center – never cross a border. “Displacement manifests itself not only in people who are forced to flee across borders but also in people who are forced to flee within their own countries,” Fuys explained.

The need for humanitarian assistance to the internally displaced can sometimes be greater than the need of refugees, he added.

Seeking safe haven

Both situations apply to ethnic people from the Karen State in Myanmar, who first began fleeing to Thailand in 1984 but also have sought a safe haven in their own country. Ee Htu Hta is the largest of 11 camps now operating for those stranded near the border with Thailand.

The Karen have been forced from their homes as the Myanmar army has increasingly occupied land that traditionally belonged to villagers from the non-Burmese ethnic nationalities. In 2008, according to estimates from the consortium, about 30 percent of the army’s entire battalions were permanently based in eastern Myanmar. The resulting conflicts, along with the army’s demand for food rations and forced laborers, have led to continued displacement.

The United Methodist relief agency began its funding of the yearlong feeding project, which continues through September, in November 2008. “We continue to stand with our brothers and sisters in Myanmar, particularly those who have been uprooted,” said the Rev. Sam Dixon, the agency’s top executive. “While the needs are great, working with our partners, we are prepared to reach out to the most vulnerable people and help meet basic needs in whatever ways we can.”

Church World Service and UMCOR also are partners in the resettlement of refugees in the United States, including some through United Methodist congregations, according to Naomi Madsen of the United Methodist agency.

“Many of these refugees, especially over the past two years and continuing even now, are Burmese,” she said. “Most of these people were in refugee camps in Thailand along the Burmese border, some for a very long time.”

Hundreds of thousands displaced

The Thailand Burma Border Consortium estimates that 451,000 people currently are displaced in eastern Myanmar. “The majority of those would not be living in the camps,” Fuys said, explaining that others are living in temporary settlements in ceasefire areas or are simply in hiding.

For now, the consortium is the sole primary food source for Ee Htu Hta. Residents try to supplement the donated food through limited opportunities to farm and forage on nearby land, but security conditions do not allow for consistent access. 

The camp is administered by the residents and its representatives have worked with consortium staff members to implement the project, which includes monthly distributions of enough rice and salt to provide 79 percent of daily nutritional needs.

The project at Ee Htu Hta also received a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development, according to UMCOR.

Contributions to UMCOR’s support of the displaced in Myanmar can be made to UMCOR Advance No. 982450, International Disaster Response. Checks can be dropped in church offering plates or mailed directly to UMCOR, PO Box 9068, New York, NY 10087-9068. Credit card donations are accepted online at www.umcor.org or by phone at (800) 554-8583.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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Church World Service

Thailand Burma Border Consortium

UN Refugee Agency

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