Friday, July 3, 2009

INGOs Kept Waiting for Visas

The Irrawaddy News

RANGOON—International aid workers are being kept waiting several weeks to get visas to enter Burma, according to international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) that are working for the recovery of cyclone-affected areas.

"This is a big headache for us,” an official from one of the INGOs told The Irrawaddy on condition of anonymity. “I don't know why the TCG (Tripartite Core Group) stopped facilitating the process of visas for international aid workers.”

Until March this year, INGOS reported that the process for obtaining visas for their staff had become easier and did not take much time. They attributed this efficiency to the efforts of the TCG, which was established in May 2008 as a working mechanism for coordinating, facilitating and monitoring the flow of international assistance into cyclone-hit areas.

The TCG comprises a joint assessment team of representatives from the Burmese military government, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and the United Nations.

The military government drew international criticism and condemnation for not allowing many international aid workers into the country in the wake of the Cyclone Nargis disaster on May 2-3 last year, which killed some 138,000 people in Burma and affected more than two million.

However, in the months following the cyclone, the TCG was relatively successful in persuading the military junta to allow international aid workers to obtain visas and get access to the cyclone-affected areas.

However, since March this year, the group has not been in a position to help the INGOs, forcing the aid workers to apply for visas by themselves in the traditionally slow and bureaucratic old system whereby aid workers have to apply for visas through the Burmese line ministries, which in turn submit their applications to the Foreign Affairs Policy Committee (FAPC).

The FAPC handles all kinds of visa applications, and reportedly meets only once a week to consider the INGO visa issues.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)/ Rangoon, there are over 200 visa applications pending with the FAPC.

“This bureaucracy mechanism certainly holds back our work, and slows down recovery efforts,” said an international aid worker working with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

According to UN sources, the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) is currently frustrated by being unable to operate a helicopter for recovery efforts because one of its pilots has been waiting for a visa in Bangkok for more than three weeks.

“We UN personnel, and some NGO personnel, use this helicopter to go to places like Bogalay and Laputta. It will have a huge impact on our traveling to the cyclone-affected area, which in another way will also have impact on the recovery work,” an official from the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) said.

"My impression is that the government no longer wants to cooperate with us, and doesn't want us to be involved in the recovery efforts," said an official from an NGO that is helping cyclone survivors in Laputta Township.

He said that some of their international staff have been waiting outside the country for Burmese visas for over four weeks, but none of them has been informed why the FAPC has taken so long to process or review their visa applications.

"We're used to this sort of bureaucracy in Burma,” an NGO official said. “But the government should know this is a very important time for the cyclone survivors. We are helping those cyclone survivors whom they [the junta] don't want to help.

”The recovery phase has just begun,” the official added. “We need more assistance and more international aid workers.”

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