Friday, May 9, 2008

Customs delays hold up aid distribution

May 9, 2008 (DVB)—Aid agencies have been able to deliver assistance to 276,000 people so far, but are facing difficulties getting customs clearance for supplies, according to a United Nations official.

Richard Horsey, spokesperson for the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said today that much more needed to be done to help those affected by Cyclone Nargis.
“The United Nations and its partners, the international NGOs, have delivered assistance to 276,000 people,” Horsey said.

“But there are 1.5 million affected. So we did reach a lot of people, but not quickly enough; we need to increase the scale of the operation.”

The aid operation has faced logistical problems, due to a lack of boats and helicopters and the destruction of transport and communications infrastructure in the cyclone.

But these problems have been exacerbated by the Burmese military regime’s unwillingness to waive visa and customs restrictions for relief workers.

“Some United Nations aid officials are getting into the country, but many are still waiting for visa clearances,” Horsey said. At least 40 visa applications are waiting to be processed in and around Bangkok, the UN has said.

The World Food Programme has also had difficulties distributing supplies that have already been flown into the country. “My understanding is that they are having problems getting the aid cleared through customs,” Horsey said. “It’s not the planes that are the problem, it’s the aid that is on the planes, and they’re having difficulties getting the customs clearance.”
Horsey stressed the importance of allowing essential staff, relief supplies and logistical equipment in to the country to avoid a “second disaster”.

In a press conference yesterday, John Holmes, the UN’s under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and UN emergency relief coordinator, said the humanitarian response was being hampered by lack of access and urged the junta to redress the situation.

“We are simply trying to help the Government of Myanmar to carry out their responsibilities to aid these people in increasingly desperate need,” Holmes said.

“There are no other political motives in this and, therefore, I appeal very strongly indeed to the Government of Myanmar both to step up their own relief efforts to help people on the ground, and to change their attitude completely to the efforts that we are making to get these relief supplies in.” UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon was also hoping to speak to junta leader senior general Than Shwe to press him to facilitate access.

Holmes said that some progress had been made, and that the Burmese authorities had agreed that customs charges and clearances should be waived for relief supplies, but this did not so far seem to have been applied on the ground.
Reporting by Htet Aung Kyaw and Siân Thomas

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