- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 20, 2017

NEW YORK (AP) - The United States will contribute nearly $32 million in humanitarian aid to help Rohingya Muslim refugees, the State Department said Wednesday, in the Trump administration’s first major response to the mass exodus from Myanmar.

The new money for food, medical care, water, sanitation and shelter comes as the U.S. joins a growing chorus of international condemnation over the minority group’s plight. In less than a month, some 421,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh, one of the world’s poorest countries, as the United Nations and others raise allegations of ethnic cleansing.

The Trump administration announced the new funds as world leaders were converging in New York for annual United Nations General Assembly meetings. Vice President Mike Pence lamented the “terrible savagery” of Myanmar’s security forces as he addressed a U.N. Security Council session Wednesday focused on peacekeeping.

“We are witnessing a historic exodus,” Pence said.

The crisis has threatened to jeopardize Myanmar’s U.S.-aided shift toward democracy after five decades of harsh military rule. Former President Barack Obama helped shepherd that transition in what is considered one of his key foreign policy achievements. President Donald Trump has been less attentive to the country, also known as Burma.

The exodus has also emerged as a major blemish on the record of Myanmar’s civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who maintained close ties to the Obama administration.

Suu Kyi did not travel to New York for the U.N. meetings, but in a speech this week - her first on the crisis - she defend her country’s actions and called for the Rohingya to return. She also held what’s believed to be her first phone call with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who urged her to let in humanitarian aid and to ensure conditions are safe enough for the Rohingya to come home.

“While we welcome Aung San Suu Kyi’s comments that returning refugees have nothing to fear, the United States of America renews our call on Burma’s security forces to end their violence immediately, and support diplomatic efforts for a long-term solution,” Pence said.

Last month, Rohingya insurgents attacked Myanmar security forces, leading to a military crackdown in which Rohingya villages have been burned and hundreds killed. The Rohingya live mainly in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state, near the Bangladesh border, and have had a long and difficult history in the predominantly Buddhist nation.

Simon Henshaw, the top U.S. diplomat for refugee and migration issues, said there was much more Myanmar’s government must do to secure the area and protect the people.

“We’re concerned about the reports of attacks, extrajudicial murders, rapes, burning of villages,” Henshaw said in an interview on the sidelines of the U.N. gathering.

The State Department will provide the money from an existing account for refugee and migration issues, officials said, and will coordinate the aid through the International Committee of the Red Cross and affiliated local groups.

Though Suu Kyi has said the “great majority” of Muslims in the conflict zone stayed put and less than half of villages were emptied, the U.S. has voiced skepticism about that assertion.

“We don’t have the access to evaluate that,” Henshaw said. “But 420,000 people moving into Bangladesh suggests the vast majority of Rohingya are affected.”

The U.S. said the new money makes up roughly one-fourth of what global aid groups say they need to address the humanitarian crisis, with the expectation that the rest of the world will make up the remaining three-quarters. Over time, the overall cost will probably run into many hundreds of millions, said Eric Schwartz, the president of Refugees International.

“I’ve been doing this work for 30 years,” Schwartz said by phone as he flew back from Bangladesh. “This is as bad as anything I’ve ever seen in terms of the human misery that the Burmese military has created.”

Schwartz said that in addition to food, water and shelter, the refugees will need clothing, security for camps being erected on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, education for hundreds of thousands of child refugees, and psychosocial support for those who have experienced trauma during the exodus.

Bangladesh already struggles with overpopulation and is poorly equipped to take in hundreds of thousands of refugees. Even so, the international community has roundly praised the country for its generosity and willingness to help the Rohingya.

The $32 million brings the total the U.S. has given in humanitarian aid for Myanmar refugees and related issues this budget year to roughly $95 million. Although the crisis has worsened sharply in recent weeks, hundreds of thousands more Rohingya were already in Bangladesh from waves of violence years earlier, while others were displaced within Myanmar.


Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington contributed to this report.


Reach Josh Lederman on Twitter at https://twitter.com/joshledermanAP

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