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FILE PHOTO: A boy sit in a burnt area after fire destroyed shelters at a camp for internally displaced Rohingya Muslims in the western Rakhine State near Sittwe, Myanmar May 3, 2016. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun/File Photo


By Simon Lewis

SITTWE, Myanmar (Reuters) - The thousands of Rohingya Muslims thronging the desolate beach had no food or water, except what the Red Cross gives them, and there was no shelter from the tropical sun and rain, yet fear of "tomorrow" has persuaded them to abandon their homes.

Fabrizio Carboni, the top International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) official in Myanmar, described the plight of some 5,OOO people who had made their way to the mouth of the Naf river that divides Buddhist Myanmar from Muslim Bangladesh.

He said some had been there as long as a month, unable to afford to pay fishermen to take them to Bangladesh, where most of their fellow Rohingyas have fled to escape the ethnic violence that erupted in Myanmar's Rakhine state two months ago.

"What I can just tell them is a beach is not a place where you live," Carboni told Reuters on Thursday, a day after visiting this stretch on the frontline of an unfolding humanitarian crisis.

Myanmar has blocked humanitarian agencies apart from Red Cross organisations from accessing the northern part of Rakhine state, where the conflict worsened after Rohingya militants attacked 30 security posts on Aug. 25. 

Many of the 600,000 stateless Rohingya Muslims who have fled Myanmar say they were driven out by a brutal military counteroffensive. The United Nations has called it a campaign of “ethnic cleansing”, and Myanmar soldiers have been accused of rape, killings and arson.

Myanmar's de facto leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, has said the refugees can return, but thousands have continued to arrive in Bangladesh.

"When you decide to leave everything and go it's because, rightly or not, you believe that tomorrow will be worse than today where you are staying," Carboni told Reuters in Sittwe, the capital of Myanmar's Rakhine state.

The stranded people weighed up their access to basic services, intercommunal relations and security before deciding to flee, he said.

“Probably it's a lack of trust for the future where they are. I don't think we are in a moment now where there's a specific event triggering movement. We are in another phase," he added.

The Red Cross, which has about 200 personnel working in northern Rakhine, provided plastic sheets, food and water to the people on the beach.

Prior to the attacks on security posts in August, several groups had hundreds of staff and volunteers working in the area, but the government has restricted the movement of aid workers after accusing some groups of aiding Rohingya militants.

Ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, who accuse aid groups of favouring Muslims, on Wednesday blocked Relief International staff from visiting a camp for Muslims displaced in earlier violence.

Protesters threw petrol bombs to try to block a Red Cross aid shipment in an incident on Sept. 20.

Carboni said the Red Cross organisations could not be the only ones working in northern Rakhine “for the long run”, but said their ability to reach people was ramping up. Food had reached 40,000 people by Monday, and at least 5,000 households would get food in the next week, he said.

“In our dialogue with the government, we were always very clear, saying we will do our best and more to reach as many people as possible,” said Carboni.

“Now there is a need for the government to re-engage with the rest of the humanitarian community, and find an acceptable way for the people to receive the assistance they need."

(Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

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