YANGON, Burma The head of humanitarian affairs for the United Nations says conditions at refugee camps in western Burma housing victims of recent communal violence are among the worst she has seen in the world and is pleading for international aid.
Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos issued a statement Saturday after a four-day visit to western Rakhine state to assess the living conditions of thousands displaced by deadly violence between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya.
"We have to improve the situation," Amos said in the statement. "People are living in overcrowded conditions with appalling sanitation and limited access to water, and an increasing risk of disease outbreaks."
Amos visited eight different refugee camps, with varying living conditions, but she described one camp in Myebon as particularly shocking.
"I have seen many camps during my time as the (U.N. emergency relief coordinator), but the conditions in this camp rank among the worst," she said.
Her remarks underscored concerns about Burma's stability even as the country, also known as Myanmar, makes strides toward a democratic society under the reformist government of President Thein Sein after almost five decades of military rule.
"There have been a number of very encouraging political developments this year, but also a number of humanitarian challenges that need to be addressed where the United Nations and our partners can help and make a difference," she told a news conference in Yangon on Friday.
She called on the government to promote reconciliation in Rakhine state, where antagonism between the two communities burst into deadly violence in recent months, killing around 200 people on both sides and displacing about 110,000 people, the vast majority of them Muslims.
She also urged the international community to contribute urgently needed cash to help improve the situation.
Last month, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator based in Burma said donors had already pitched in $27 million, but that an additional $41 million was needed to meet humanitarian needs through June 2013.
There is widespread resentment of the Rohingya community, whom many in Burma regard as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh out to steal their land. The resentment extends to U.N. and other agencies that provide relief to the displaced Rohingya.
"In Rakhine, the tensions between the communities are still running very high. There is a loss of trust and I believe the government must play a critical role in reconciliation," Amos said. "We need the political leaders at all levels in Burma to support the important humanitarian work being done by the United Nations and our partners."
Amos also called on the government to allow the U.N. to travel to areas in northern Burma controlled by ethnic Kachin insurgents who are fighting against the army, in order to provide assistance to civilians affected by the strife
"In Kachin and northern Shan states, continued fighting since June last year has forced some 75,000 people from their homes and in need of assistance," she said.
For almost six months the U.N. has not been able to provide assistance to almost 40,000 people because it is not permitted to go to areas controlled by the Kachin rebels, who seek more autonomy from the government, she said.
"We have asked the government to give us permission to travel to these areas and provide the aid that is so badly needed," Amos said.