Myanmar forcing cyclone survivors out of refugee camps, UN official says

Myanmar's military government appears to be reasserting its authority over cyclone relief operations. Aid officials say the junta has been forcing survivors out of refugee camps and hindering the access it had promised foreign aid workers, AP reported.

A U.N. official said Friday the government was making cyclone survivors leave camps and "dumping" them near their devastated villages with virtually no aid supplies.

Eight camps set up for homeless survivors in the Irrawaddy delta town of Bogalay were "totally empty" as the clear-out continued, said Teh Tai Ring of the United Nations Children's Fund - UNICEF - at a meeting of U.N. and private aid agency workers discussing water and sanitation issues.

"The government is moving people unannounced," he said, adding that authorities were "dumping people in the approximate location of the villages, basically with nothing."

After his statements were reported, UNICEF issued a statement saying the remarks referred to "unconfirmed reports by relief workers on the relocation of displaced people affected by" the May 2-3 storm.

In his remarks at the water experts' meeting, however, Teh said the information came from a relief worker who had just returned from the affected area and that "tears were shed" when he recounted his findings earlier in the day.

Separately, at a church in Yangon, more than 400 cyclone victims from a delta township, Labutta, were evicted Friday following orders from authorities a day earlier.

"It was a scene of sadness, despair and pain," said a church official at the Yangon Karen Baptist Home Missions in Yangon, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of official reprisal. "Those villagers lost their homes, their family members and the whole village was washed away. They have no home to go back to."

All the refuge-seekers except some pregnant women, two young children and those with severe illnesses left the church in eleven trucks Friday morning.

The authorities told church workers that the victims would first be taken to a government camp in Myaung Mya - a mostly undamaged town in the Irrawaddy delta - but it was not immediately clear when they would be resettled in their villages.

Aid groups meanwhile said Myanmar's military government was hindering foreign assistance for victims of the cyclone, despite a promise to U.N. Secretary Ban Ki-moon to ease travel restrictions.

Some foreign aid workers are still awaiting visas, and the government is taking 48 hours to process requests to enter the Irrawaddy delta, the groups said.

They said the International Red Cross was waiting for permission to send 30 foreign staffers into the delta.

An estimated 2.4 million people remain homeless and hungry after the May 2-3 cyclone hit Myanmar, also known as Burma. Myanmar's government says the cyclone killed 78,000 people and left another 56,000 missing.

UNICEF's Teh said some of the refugees were "being given rations and then they are forced to move." But others were being denied such aid because they had lost their government identity cards, he said.

The government's reasons for allegedly moving people out of camps and shelters have not been publicly clarified, but it earlier declared the "relief" phase of the rescue effort over and said it was time for "reconstruction."

Foreign aid experts disagree, arguing that many people are still in need of emergency assistance for food and shelter, as well as medical care.

Aid workers who have reached some of the remote villages say little remains that could sustain the former residents. Houses are destroyed, livestock have perished and food stocks have virtually run out. Medicine supplies are nonexistent.

Terje Skavdal, a senior U.N. official in Bangkok, Thailand, said he could not confirm the camp closures but that any such forced movement was "completely unacceptable."

"People need to be assisted in the settlements and satisfactory conditions need to created before they can return to their place of origins," Skavdal, head of the Asia-Pacific region's U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told reporters. "Any forced or coerced movement of people is completely unacceptable."

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