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Q&A: What will Asia do about the humanitarian crisis unfolding on its doorstep?

Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

A: After a visit to refugee camps in Bangladesh this month, Simon Henshaw, the acting assistant U.S. secretary of State for refugee affairs, described the conditions as "shocking."

Despite an outpouring of international aid, humanitarian agencies have struggled to meet the needs of the swelling population of new arrivals, including many who arrive gravely ill from the journey.

In one camp, Kutupalong, the United Nations Children's Fund reported this month that 26,000 refugees face acute shortages of food and water and high rates of diarrhea and respiratory infections. An assessment found that 7.5 percent of children in the camp faced life-threatening severe acute malnutrition.

"Those with severe malnutrition are now at risk of dying from an entirely preventable and treatable cause," said UNICEF's Bangladesh representative, Edouard Beigbeder.

Q: What has been Myanmar's response?

A: Myanmar's government does not recognize the Rohingya as one of 135 official ethnic groups and regards them as Bangladeshis who migrated to the country illegally. Many Rohingya families dispute this, saying their roots in western Myanmar date back generations.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who leads Myanmar's first democratically elected government in a half-century, played down the severity of the attacks in a speech in September, arguing that more than 50 percent of villages in Rakhine were intact.

Suu Kyi visited the state last week for the first time since the exodus began and has said Myanmar would begin allowing refugees to return home -- although experts believe that because Myanmar doesn't consider the Rohingya citizens, they could be barred from reentering the country.

At the summit, the aloof Suu Kyi could be pushed to answer questions.

"She will be forced to meet people and talk about this, which is a healthy thing," said Khin Zaw Win, director of the Tampadipa Institute, an independent think tank in Myanmar. "In a democracy that's the kind of thing that must happen."

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