YANGON, Myanmar Myanmar's military government is forcing cyclone victims out of refugee camps and "dumping" them near their devastated villages with virtually no aid supplies, U.N. and church officials said Friday.
Eight camps set up by the junta for homeless victims in the Irrawaddy delta town of Bogalay were "totally empty" as the clear-out continued, said Teh Tai Ring of UNICEF, speaking at a meeting of U.N. and private aid agency workers discussing water and sanitation issues.
"The government is moving people unannounced," he said, adding that authorities were "dumping people in the approximate location of the villages, basically with nothing."
After his remarks were reported, UNICEF issued a statement saying they referred to "unconfirmed reports by relief workers on the relocation of displaced people" affected by the May 2-3 storm.
However, Teh said the information came from a relief worker who had just returned from the affected area and that "tears were shed" when he recounted his findings to UNICEF officials earlier in the day.
The rights group Refugees International said authorities appear to be trying to get villagers back to their land to begin tending their fields and reviving agriculture.
"While agriculture recovery is indeed vital, forcing people home without aid makes it harder for aid agencies to reach them with assistance," it said.
At a church in Yangon, meanwhile, more than 400 cyclone victims from the delta township of Labutta were evicted Friday following orders from authorities a day earlier.
"It was a scene of sadness, despair and pain," said a church official at the Yangon Karen Baptist Home Missions, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of official reprisal. "Those villagers lost their homes, their family members and the whole village was washed away. They have no home to go back to."
All the refugees except for a few pregnant women, two young children and those with severe illnesses left the church in 11 trucks Friday morning, the official said.
Authorities told church workers the victims would first be taken to a government camp in Myaung Mya a mostly undamaged town in the Irrawaddy delta. It was not immediately clear when they would be resettled in their villages.
Aid groups said Myanmar's military government was still hindering foreign assistance for victims of the cyclone, despite a promise to U.N. Secretary Ban Ki-moon to ease travel restrictions.
Some foreign aid workers are still awaiting visas, and the government is taking 48 hours to process requests to enter the Irrawaddy delta, the groups said.
They said the International Red Cross was waiting for permission to send 30 foreign staffers into the delta.
An estimated 2.4 million people remain homeless and hungry from the cyclone, which left at least 134,000 people dead or missing.
UNICEF's Teh said many people were also being forced to return from camps to their homes in Labutta, a low-lying area that took the brunt of Cyclone Nargis nearly a month ago.
Centralizing stricken people in the centers had made it easier for aid agencies to deliver emergency relief since many villages in the delta can only be reached by boat or over very rough roads.
The UNICEF official said some refugees were "given rations and then they are forced to move." But others were denied aid because they had lost their government identity cards, he said.
The government has not given a reason for moving people out of camps and shelters, but last week it declared the "relief" phase of the rescue effort over and said "reconstruction" was under way.
Foreign aid experts disagree, arguing many people are still in need of emergency assistance for food and shelter, as well as medical care.
Aid workers who have reached some of the remote villages say little remains to sustain survivors. Houses are destroyed, livestock have perished and food stocks have virtually run out. Medicines are nonexistent.
Terje Skavdal, a senior U.N. official in Bangkok, said he could not confirm the camp closures but any forced movement was "completely unacceptable."
"People need to be assisted in the settlements and satisfactory conditions need to created before they can return to their place of origins," Skavdal, head of the Asia-Pacific region's U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told reporters. "Any forced or coerced movement of people is completely unacceptable."
"We urge speedy implementation of all agreements on access, visas and use of logistical assets," Skavdal said. "We need to see more relief experts, including (those) from the (International Red Cross), getting into the delta as soon as possible without bureaucratic hindrance."
The government has said the wait for approval to enter the delta has been shortened from two weeks to two days for U.N. staff, but "it's unclear how long the process will be for the NGOs (non-governmental organizations). The staff are urgently required on the ground," he said.
The military regime only agreed to allow foreign aid workers in after the U.N. chief met with junta leader Senior Gen. Than Shwe last weekend.
The country's leaders are leery of foreign aid workers and international agencies, worrying they could weaken the junta's powerful grip.