Rakhine’s food aid racket

Residents of camps for the internally displaced in Rakhine State say they are not receiving the food aid to which they are entitled and management committees are to blame.

Rohingya children sit next to a structure partially constructed from WFP ration sacks in Thae Chaung IDP camp, near Sittwe, on August 4. Alex Bookbinder / Frontier)

Rohingya children sit next to a structure partially constructed from WFP ration sacks in Thae Chaung IDP camp, near Sittwe, on August 4. Alex Bookbinder / Frontier)

Salim* arrived destitute at Thae Chaung in 2012, forced from his home in the wake of the communal violence that erupted throughout Rakhine State that year. In common with most of his neighbours, he came from Narzi quarter in Sittwe, the state capital, and now lives in a squat bamboo hut in a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) that houses more than 1,000 other families.

His only source of income is irregular day-labouring wages, and he cannot legally leave the apartheid-like archipelago of camps outside Sittwe without permission from the authorities. Salim and his family are among the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya in Rakhine who are reliant on aid provided by the United Nations World Food Programme.

In the camp management office at Thae Chaung IDP camp, a banner displayed by the WFP and its implementing partners spells out clearly how much aid IDPs are entitled to receive. “Do you know your food ration size?” it asks. “Make sure you receive the complete package.”

Officially, each IDP in Rakhine is entitled to 13.5 kilograms (about 30 pounds) of rice a month, as well as 1.8kg of pulses, 0.9kg of cooking oil, and 0.15kg of salt. There are special food supplements for pregnant women and young children.

Salim and his family do not receive the food aid to which they are entitled and neither do most of the residents of Thae Chaung. Every month, after rations arrive, Salim says his family must hand over to the committee responsible for managing the camp one kilogram of rice for every person each every month – a hefty amount, given his family’s near-total reliance on food aid.

“When we are given our WFP rations, we bring them home. The camp committee then comes and collects what they want. They give the rations for the labourers who carry the rice and they sell some,” Salim said.

Salim’s complaint was echoed by an overwhelming number of households in Thae Chaung and other IDP camps around Sittwe. The diversion of aid by camp management committees appears to be a widespread practice, an investigation by Frontier has found.

Although the dire conditions in the camps have remained largely unchanged over the past few years, and Rohingya rights remain severely curtailed by official policies of persecution, the WFP intends to cut rations further. The “WFP has been in discussions with authorities on the possibility of initiating progressive ration reductions to IDPs,” a WFP spokesperson told Frontier by email.

These cuts will likely take effect in November, although the UN agency intends to temporarily reduce rations for August because of a re-prioritisation of needs caused by the national flooding crisis that left Rakhine one of the worst-affected areas.

The WFP did not say by how much rations would be reduced. However, an internal Rakhine State government document seen by Frontier indicates that it expects rice rations to be cut by 10 percent and cooking oil and pulses by 20 percent, based on discussions with the WFP.

Although the camp management committees are comprised of Rohingyas, the state government directly selects their members. Food management and distribution is ostensibly carried out by separate committees chosen by IDPs. But members of the Thae Chaung camp management committee told Frontier that food distribution is overseen by members of the government-appointed camp management committee, a fact that has likely led to accountability issues.

Although the WFP claims mechanisms are in place to ensure proper oversight by its implementation partners, IDPs say they feel powerless to stand up to the camp management committees about their reduced rations.

“We have no way of complaining,” Salim said. “The camp committees collect just a little bit of rice, so we do not complain about it. But we are afraid that if we complain, maybe the camp committees will threaten us and make problems for us.”

Muhammad Naseem, a camp leader, admits that his committee diverts some provisions – one-eighth of a kilogram of rice from each person every month, an amount significantly lower than that reported to Frontier by IDPs. He claims this diversion is necessary to pay transportation costs associated with delivering the aid, and is also used to pay day labourers for routine maintenance around the camp. He claims the camp committee also maintains a strategic rice reserve for times of crisis. “All IDPs agree with what we are doing,” he said.

Noor Begum*, Salim’s neighbour, disagrees. “The camp committee scolds us,” Noor Begum said. “They said to us, ‘We are not your slaves.’ They say they are distributing aid for us, so we must give some to them,” she said.

“The committee asks for us to give rice and oil to pay for transportation and labour. But we don’t give them any. Instead, we give them money – 800 kyats every month.”

The WFP does not compensate IDPs for costs allegedly incurred by transportation for the simple reason that no such costs should be incurred by anyone. “Distribution points are agreed by the cooperating partners and [food management committees] – and are located to be most convenient to beneficiaries,” the WFP spokesperson said. “Normally, it is in central locations within the camp to minimise transport costs.”

The existence of these “transport costs” has led to widespread speculation by IDPs that camp committee members sell food aid for their own gain, although this could not be independently verified. For all their travails, Noor Begum and Salim are relatively lucky to receive any aid at all. The WFP estimated in June that some 22,000 displaced persons in Rakhine were not receiving food aid, which is almost certainly lower than the number in immediate need of assistance.

Rashida Begum*, who lives with her mother, grandmother, and infant son in Dar Paing camp, receives no food aid from the WFP. Although the family receives intermittent aid from private donors, it is not enough to live on. “It’s very difficult,” Rashida Begum said. “We don’t have rations or regular access to food. If we have to buy rice, we don’t have curry. This is how we are surviving,” she said.

Rashida Begun says her family was left off the official lists compiled by the Rakhine government on behalf of the WFP because her husband is in prison. He was charged with inciting violence in Santoli village, near Narzi quarter, after the 2012 bloodshed. She says many Rohingyas from Santoli have been left off official lists as punishment for the deaths of “five or six” ethnic Rakhine there in 2012. Despite repeated attempts, her family has never been added to the list of those officially displaced, Rashida Begun told Frontier.

The WFP says this should not happen, claiming that it verifies names with local authorities and that it makes decisions in consultation with the food management committees. In cases where requests for food aid are denied, the reasons are always explained to the applicant, the WFP spokesperson said.

IDPs contradict this. Amir Hussein, who lives in Ohn Daw Gyi IDP camp, does not receive WFP aid and has, of his own accord, established an unofficial food management committee to equitably distribute the meagre private aid that does trickle in for his community. He says that repeated petitions to be added to WFP lists have been met with indifference.

“The local WFP staff are ethnic Bamar and Rakhine and are very close to the camp committees,” Amir Hussein said. “[The local staff] don’t give their applications to the WFP, because they are close to the official camp committees,” he said.

He drafted a formal appeal and collected signatures from unregistered IDPs in his section of Ohn Daw Gyi camp, where he and others estimate some two-thirds of the population does not receive WFP aid. He alleges some families have been denied rations because they angered the local camp management committee.

Unlike most of the IDPs around Sittwe, Amir Hussein is originally from Kyaukphyu, in central Rakhine State. Forced from his home in 2012, his family originally migrated to Pauktaw, a short boat ride from Sittwe. They moved to Ohn Daw Gyi just over a year ago because the camp in Pauktaw did not have adequate drinking water – a well-documented problem there.

“We appealed to the WFP to transfer our rations,” Amir Hussein said. “But the WFP told us that we were already registered in Pauktaw and that our rations were being distributed there. To get rations, we were told we would have to go back.”

The WFP says it is working in collaboration with the Rakhine government on a “verification and retargeting exercise to ensure that the beneficiary list is up to date”, but this has so far meant little to Amir Hussein and his community, who are visibly emaciated and survive on irregular meals of watery rice gruel.

He lives alongside many of his former neighbours from Kyaukphyu, some of whom initially moved to Sittwe. He claims that, even though those who first went to Sittwe do receive WFP rations, they are “misused by the camp committee. The people who moved here from Pauktaw, they get nothing.”

Although more aid and better accountability are critical in the short-term, the privation faced by the Rohingyas is an entirely man-made problem. The restrictions on mobility to which they are subject severely limit their economic and educational opportunities.

Myanmar’s harsh 1982 Citizenship Law means that many are de-facto stateless persons, despite having ancestors who have lived in the country for generations. Untangling these injustices will be the only way to build a durable solution.

“We had our businesses and could survive well before the violence. How long can the WFP provide us with rations?” said Muhammad Ayub, a member of the Thae Chaung camp management committee. “We don’t want to ask them for rations indefinitely. We don’t want to be dependent. We want to be able to stand on our own two feet. It is making us beggars.”

*Some names have been changed.

By Alex Bookbinder

By Alex Bookbinder

Alex Bookbinder is an independent journalist and researcher focused on Myanmar and Southeast Asia. Based in London, he lived and worked in Myanmar from 2012-2016, and was a founding staff member of Frontier in 2015.
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