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US should Offer Aid to Help Burma Cyclone Victims

U.S. Should Offer Aid to Help Cyclone Victims in Burma

Washington, D.C. - The U.S. should lift its funding restrictions on humanitarian aid to Burma and offer emergency assistance in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, Refugees International said today. The cyclone devastated Burma over the weekend, leaving over 10,000 people dead, and thousands more in desperate straits.

"With Burma's citizens already struggling for survival, Cyclone Nargis has put many over the edge, and has left an unknown number of people without food, safe water, housing and other basic necessities," said Joel Charny, Refugees International's vice president for policy. "The U.S. has spoken recently about the need to support the Burmese people. Now is the time to show that support by providing emergency humanitarian assistance."

The U.S. currently places severe limitations on humanitarian aid to Burma, with less than $4 million currently going to assist people in this nation of 55 million people. The U.S. provides less aid to Burma than any major donor state at this time. Despite these funding constraints, 10 UN agencies and 48 humanitarian aid organizations, many of them American, currently operate inside Burma.

"There is an organizational infrastructure inside Burma that knows how to get aid to the people independent of the government. We should immediately look at how to get them the resources they need to respond to this crisis," Charny said. "Many international aid agencies have over a decade of experience working in communities to provide direct assistance. They have developed independent supply, transport and distribution mechanisms to respond to this crisis and these agencies should be supported."

Charny, who completed a humanitarian assessment mission to Burma in February and March 2008, recently issued a report in which Refugees International called on the U.S. to relax its opposition to providing humanitarian aid to the people of Burma. "International donors are recognizing the tremendous need inside Burma and the obligation to end the humanitarian restrictions that constitute an additional punishment for the Burmese people. The U.S. is the glaring exception to this trend," the report stated.

Despite the effects of the cyclone, the Burmese government plans to move forward with a nation-wide constitutional referendum on May 10. With the political process in Burma mired in an unproductive stalemate, Refugees International is further concerned about possible repercussions for the humanitarian situation inside the country. The referendum will offer a new opportunity to express international disapproval, but the humanitarian response to the needs of the Burmese people should be divorced from the political situation.

"In the past, many countries, including the United States, have rushed to impose sanctions and further isolate Burma in response to negative events inside the country," Charny said. "Humanitarian aid should never be tied to political processes. It is meant to help the poorest people in a society survive, not to punish them for decisions that are often beyond their control."

Refugees International is calling for a more nuanced response, which sanctions the Burmese leadership for their undemocratic behavior, while supporting the Burmese people themselves through increased humanitarian aid. UN and international aid groups currently working in Burma have demonstrated their ability to work independently of the government through local staff and community-based organizations. Refugees International applauds the recent moves by both the United Kingdom and the European Union to increase humanitarian aid inside Burma. Both nations have promised a doubling of assistance in the next three years.

"It is entirely possible to provide assistance to the people of Burma without benefiting this repressive government," Charny said. "The United States should follow the same course as European nations and increase humanitarian aid, regardless of the outcome of the constitutional referendum. The U.S. should reaffirm its position as a global leader and reassess its commitment to the people of Burma."

Refugees International is a Washington, DC-based organization that advocates to end refugee crises. In February and March of 2008 staff members of the organization traveled to Burma to assess the humanitarian situation inside the country. For more information, go to http://www.refugeesinternational.org/burma.

ENDS

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