Thu, May 08, 2008 - Page 1 News List

Aid groups fume as junta stalls

VISA HOLD-UPThe junta insists foreign aid workers must ‘negotiate’ their entry. France says the UN is considering ignoring the junta to deliver aid

AGENCIES , BANGKOK, PARIS AND YANGON, MYANMAR

Cyclone-affected families wait for relief supplies outside their destroyed homes in Haing Gyi Island in the Irrawaddy division of Myanmar on Monday.

PHOTO: AFP

Frustrated aid agencies said yesterday they were still being denied permission to enter Myanmar and help desperate survivors of a weekend cyclone that has left millions homeless and without food and water.

Pledges of cash, supplies and assistance are pouring in from around the world, but little is reaching the country, and experts are warning of a catastrophe if they are not allowed in to direct the relief effort.

A vast swathe of Myanmar’s low-lying delta region was inundated by the storm which hit on Saturday, killing at least 22,464, sweeping away entire towns, and triggering fears that disease could push the death toll still higher.

International charity Save the Children said Myanmar authorities had given aid workers no word on when visas would be granted.

“We have absolutely no idea of what progress, if any, will be made on better visa management,” its Bangkok-based spokesman Dan Collinson said after a meeting of relief agencies at UN offices here.

“We’re frustrated. At the moment we still have a reasonable amount of capacity in-country, but that’s going to run out very quickly,” he said.

“This issue is one of a number being raised at a high UN level. I think the maximum amount of pressure is being applied at the highest level of UN discussions,” he said.

The junta has insisted that foreign aid workers must “negotiate” their entry to the country.

The UN said yesterday that the regime has finally appointed a minister to review visa applications by aid workers, but that no permits have yet been issued.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Koucher said yesterday that Paris has suggested invoking a UN “responsibility to protect” clause and delivering aid directly to Myanmar without waiting for approval from Yangon.

He said the idea was under discussion at the UN in New York.

“We are seeing at the United Nations if we can’t implement the responsibility to protect, given that food, boats and relief teams are there, and obtain a United Nations’ resolution which authorizes the delivery [of aid] and imposes this on the Burmese government,” he said.

The UN recognized in 2005 the concept of a “responsibility to protect” civilians when their governments could or would not do it, even if this meant intervention that violated national sovereignty.

“Time is of the essence,” said Ann Veneman, executive director of UN children’s agency UNICEF. “Children are highly vulnerable to disease and hunger, and they need immediate help to survive.”

Both UNICEF and Medecins Sans Frontieres said they had staff ready to be deployed as soon as they were given the green light.

“We are hoping to get in as soon as possible and we want to be ready,” UNICEF’s Bangkok-based spokeswoman Shantha Bloemen said. “Our 130 staff there are working round the clock doing an amazing job but burnout is going to be a big problem. We’re concerned for their welfare and how long they will be able to sustain the effort.”

The UN said an aid flight bearing emergency supplies and accompanied by its disaster experts had won approval to travel from from Italy yesterday, and China, Singapore and Bangladesh also sent planes loaded with relief materials.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies launched an appeal for almost US$6 million to buy urgently needed items like shelter kits, water and mosquito nets.

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