Catholic relief agency in Myanmar faces travel restrictions

BANGKOK -- A Catholic relief agency already working in Myanmar when Cyclone Nargis struck May 3 is grappling with travel restrictions as it tries to assess the situation and help survivors in the Irrawaddy River delta region.

Malteser International, formally the Order of Malta Worldwide Relief, has been working in Myanmar since 2001 on several humanitarian projects including health care and safe drinking water.

“We would be able to do noticeably much more in terms of aid if our team could travel to the affected region in the Irrawaddy delta area. But the Myanmar government does not allow our international aid workers to go there,” Malteser head Ingo Radtke told UCA News on May 8 via e-mail from Germany.

In addition, the organization’s international staff are also prohibited from traveling to the project areas where they were working before the cyclone hit. A Malteser spokesperson says local staff have to inform the authorities before traveling outside of Yangon.

The organization had hoped restrictions would ease, facilitating relief efforts. Instead, travel permits that had been issued to international staff were withdrawn.

“The situation here is really dramatic,” Birke Herzbruch, Malteser project coordinator in Myanmar said in a May 5 report from Yangon to her headquarters in Germany, which UCA News obtained on May 7. Yangon and the Irrawaddy delta are the two worst-hit areas.

“We have already given out water purification tablets to treat drinking water for people in the district of Dawbon in Yangon and the poor rural settlement of Tantabin near Yangon,” reported Herzbruch, who was in Yangon when the cyclone struck.

Staff members have ordered water purification tablets to assure safe drinking water and to avoid an outbreak of diseases, she said. A medical team is also providing first aid to injured people in the districts of Dawbon and Tantabin.

“Fortunately, the water tank we have built next to the health center in Tantabin was not damaged by the cyclone,” Herzbruch said. “The tank has a volume of 22,000 liters and provides water for the whole neighborhood.”

Despite these difficulties, Malteser is distributing plastic sheeting, cookware, mosquito nets and more water to households. The Malteser team said there is a great need for food and safe drinking water, tents, plastic sheets or other material for temporary shelter, household items, medicine, clothes and blankets.

On May 8, the helpers went out on their third assessment in Thongwa district and distributed medicine.

“Damage to buildings is substantial in Yangon and the surrounding areas,” said Cesar Russo, a logistics expert with the NGO, in his report. “Most of the wooden structures have been destroyed or seriously damaged,” he added, referring to damage to homes. A large number of people have sought refuge in community centers, temples and school buildings where the health conditions are deteriorating, he reported, saying shortages of food, bottled water and fuel are evident as prices continue to increase. Most of those shelters need immediate relief assistance.

“Fortunately,” Herzbruch said, “none of our staff members were injured. But of course the local staff are affected by the consequences of the cyclone, so that in addition to their work, they have to take care of their families too.”

As of May 8, according to Malteser sources, the Myanmar government was estimating more than 80,000 people died in the disaster. Other sources fear the death toll may pass 100,000, whereas the government is reporting just under 23,000 confirmed deaths and more than 42,000 missing.

According to Malteser International headquarters in Germany, the organization has provided about US$77,500 for current cyclone relief activities and has received a matching amount from Caritas Internationalis to help with their work.

The following U.S. and Canadian aid agencies, part of the Caritas Internationalis network, are working with Caritas agencies in southeastern Asia and are accepting donations to assist in Myanmar:

  • Catholic Relief Services -- by phone: (888) 277-7575; online:; or by mailing a check earmarked "Southeast Asia Natural Disaster" to: Catholic Relief Services, P.O. Box 17090, Baltimore, MD 21203-7090.

  • Development and Peace -- by phone: (888) 664-3387; online:; or by mailing a check earmarked "Emergency: Burma/Myanmar" to: Development and Peace, 1425 Rene-Levesque Blvd. West, 3rd Floor, Montreal, Quebec, H3G 1T7, Canada.

  • Caritas Internationalis can be accessed online at:

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