Written by U Ne Oo on 1996-07-09
PROBLEM OF REFUGEES
AND THE REFUGEE PROBLEM
In a recent information from Reuters, there has been continuing movement of displaced people from Arakan State into Bangladesh. The international community is still un-surety is still un-sure about how to handle the new influx of Rohingyas: should they be treated as refugees who have a 'well founded fear of persecution' or to be treated as the so-called 'economic migrants'. Such new influx also poses dilemma on refugee agencies, whether to give protection and assistance to the new comers.
Although one cannot make entirely accurate judgment (i.e. needs further independent reports) from single piece of information that has received, the root causes of displacement for the newcomers appears to be disti be distinct from the influx of 1992. From the Amnesty Report on Rohingyas in 1992, that posted recently to the net, it is clear that the root cause of 92's influx has been the state-organized expulsion of Rohingyas. In this context, the forced labour, which combined with the use of terror, was employed by SLORC as a measure to flee Rohingyas-Muslim from Burma.
This new influx in 1996, however, is not caused by such a state organized expulsion of Rohingyas. The root causes seems to be that (1) the widespread use of forced labour by the government and (2) the economic desperation of the general populace. One needed to be noted that the forced labour in Arakan, now a day, is not targeted particularly to the Rohingyas - in contrast to forced porterage, etc. occurred in 1992. Furthermore, the circumstances that has caused economic pressure upon these displaced Rohingyas, such as informal taxation and forced procurement of crops, are not uncommon incidents in Burma.
The root causes of the new influx to Bangladesh, therefore, are mh, therefore, are mixture of economic desperation that combined with repression inside Burma. Such cases of displacement are not new: the more than 300,000 displace Burmese in Thailand may considered to be in the same category. It is evident that the protection of serious human rights violations (such as rape, unlawful detention and torture, extrajudicial executions) in order to prevent such refugee influx is inadequate, but consideration need to be made of development issues and also of reforms on the practice of taxation and forcedd forced labour.
Issues on development and reforms on various institutions are inevitably more complex and not suited to be left the UNHCR and humanitarian agencies alone to solve. The solution will require the cooperation from all political forces and efforts are needed to tackle simultaneously throughout Burma.
Currently, it has been reported that the Karen National Union negotiation team is again holding ceasefire talk with SLORC. While awaiting the results of the talk and before organizing any appropriate actropriate action, one can look a little closer at the repatriation of Rohingyas and international response so far.
Problem of refugees or The refugee problem?
In the past year, we have seen 4-contributors to the issue on the repatriation of Rohingyas: 1. US Committee for Refugees' report on March 1995; 2. Medecins sans Frontieres reported on January and May 1995; 3. UN High Commissioner for Refugees on July 1995; and 4. ACFOA and other NGOs reports from Australia. Although the USCR and MSF hUSCR and MSF has now in agreement with UNHCR about repatriation, as has been reported by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs' Human Rights Submission on 8 August 1995, few of the issues that caused disagreement between those Agencies should be examined.
Initial efforts on humanitarian concerns
Attempts to provide humanitarian aid to people inside Burma were made in 1992 by International Council of Voluntary Agency. In August-September of that year, Mr Russel Rollason, the Chair of ICVA, with 3 othewith 3 other persons have visited Burma to assess the humanitarian needs of people inside Burma. At that time, the anti-SLORC feelings amongst the pro-democracy groups within Australia and elsewhere has been strong and therefore any efforts that perceived to be legitimizing the military regime in Burma were vigorously opposed. Whether these protests by someother Burmese support groups have discouraged these NGOs to proceed further in that direction, I personally was much appreciative of such humanitarian considerations. Contis. Continued efforts were thus made since then in order to fulfill these NGOs aspiration to provide humanitarian aid to the people inside Burma. The efforts for repatriation of refugees to Burma is, therefore, to be interpreted people inside Burma.
Involvement of NGOs in any such operation will inevitably be complex politically. From the SLORC's perspective, the NGOs are always welcomed to operate in Burma if that provide some international respectal respectability to the military administration. This point, in fact, is un-acceptable to the Burmese democrats. It is therefore necessary to formulate strategy to provide aid to the people of Burma without giving legitimacy to the military government.
From my view, it therefore necessary for NGOs to work in partnership with UNHCR. Although the NGOs proved to be efficient in providing humanitarian aid to the people in needs, they will not be able to get proper access to grassroots without the help of the UN.
Global Refugee Policy shift
Whether it may be possible to generalize the phenomenon to the international level, there has been certain disquiet about the UN repatriations at the grassroots NGOs.The UNHCR, however, have to take various new approaches in solving refugee problems since 1990. The grassroots NGOs, which I have been in contact with since earlier years, however, doesn't seem to have taken notice of the changing policy trends. The usual focus of grassroots NGOs to refugee problem was the resettleblem was the resettlement to the third countries - in which it does solve the problem of individual refugees. At present, the proportion of resettlement for global refugee population found to be merely 0.3%. Though it may be small in numbers, the refugee advocacy groups have rarely ventured to look issues beyond resettlement, except for the protection in country of asylum and the care for humanitarian needs in refugee settlements. Such approach of NGOs said to be exiled-oriented refugee policy, which does provide solution to the problem roblem of individual refugee.
A refugee problem may be solved, in theory, when the problem of all individual refugees have been solved: such as making resettlement for all refugees to a third country. When total number of refugees is large, such as in the case of 260,000 Rohingyas, the third country resettlement is simply not a viable option. When one look at refugee problems at their source (i.e. country of origin), the roots of problems found to be human rights and political in nature. Solving fundamental problem and attacking the root causes, which now known as the homeland (solution) oriented refugee policy, becomes the one that also promote a durable solution for the refugees.
Uniqueness of Problems
The Medecins Sans Frontieres, in its report on May-1995, questioned the policy consistency and the mandate of UNHCR in promoting repatriation for Rohingyas. It also suggest that the fundamental change of circumstances, such as the change in 1982 Citizenship laws (or change of government ?), are needed to et ?), are needed to ensure the voluntary repatriations. It also expresses fears that such policy would set a precedence for future repatriations where there has been no fundamental change of circumstances.
I believe that one important factor that must be taken into account in examining refugee issue is the uniqueness of every refugee problem: each refugee problem has its own characteristics, causes and consequences that requires a specific device and approach for solution. Even amongst the refugees from Burma, the situation have bee have been varied: while the flight of Rohingyas were caused by state-organized expulsion, other Burmese refugees in Thailand and elsewhere are caused, mainly, by ethnic and political oppression. Therefore different approach is required for Rohingyas.
The main cause of influx for Rohingyas in 1992 found to be the SLORC's attempt to make political diversion. Once it was over, the situation has returned to normal and it seem more conducive for majority to return. So long as the Rohingyas are not singled out for persecuti persecution, better to be living in their own residences in Burma.
The Citizenship issue is much more difficult to solve in countries such as Burma. To redress the sort of legislative-discrimination against non-indigenous Burmese, such as Indians and Chinese, would need much more time and energy. Given the conservative attitudes towards migration, no Burmese are going to take this sort of issue lightly. It is certain that these kind of issues could not be resolved overnight, even after a democratic government come into power. Much further education in this regards may be needed to tackle such an issue. My personal view is that whatever the ethnicity may be differing - Rohingyas or Chinese or Indians - the people who born in Burma do have a strong attachment to its people and the land and therefore should be given the citizenship.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights have given us a guidance on how one should treat another in respect and with dignity wispect and with dignity within our human family.It must also be taken as the guidance for treatment of vulnerable group of person/persons - such as the refugees. When addressing improvement to the situation of human rights, the first important step is to identify - or make a list - of those human rights predicament. This step must be - also can be - done in accordance with our universal human aspirations for freedom and social justice without reference made to race, religion and culture etc.
When we take a step further to improve the situation of human rights, it is the politics that decide what we will achieve and what we may not achieve at a certain stage. Unlike human rights objectives, which we must make an idealistic goal, the political objective must be pragmatic and realistic. Human rights situation can be and must be improved, but only as much as the politics allowed it to. Politics is the reality; and it is quite inflexible. The human rights objectives are, generally speaking, to be taken as the long-term goal. But, to achieve that goal, hieve that goal, a small but certain and firm steps need to be made within the political realities.
Protection of the rights of the refugees, which is a human rights goal, is thus dictated by political realities. It may not be too far to look beyond our own experience in the strife for protection of refugees from Burma in order to see things in this perspective. We are not that successful in protecting the rights of refugees. With the helps of one "Debt-Ridden Organization" and the "Much-Poorer NGOs", we would bae would barely save refugees from the brutal hands of the governments. Current climate suggests that if these refugees are not being forced to return or not being manipulated to serve as pawns between governments (and the businesses) - it can be considered as a great success. In the case of Rohingyas, it has been much better off with getting the repatriation organized than of them being forced back to Burma by governments' bi-lateral agreements. So long as the life and security of refugees are not adversely threatened by govd by government actions, it considered to have achieved the protection objectives.
In the world of international politics, no single organization is having an absolute power. Each entities -- governments, United Nations, NGOs and Groups including the refugees -- have to do in accordance with the dictates of true politics. The refugees' rights to say 'no' to repatriation must be seen in this light. Practically, there are no other viable alternatives in longer-term: the resettlement has given 0.3% chance; to wait a chanait a change of government in Burma - it is hard to put a number. If there is some way to have proper monitoring for the majority of refugee populace, the homeland is the best one amongst the evils. A balanced consideration need to be made about the refugees resuming their usual life in their normal place of residences against the hardships that have to face by living in the camps.
The issues of Rohingyas in Burma is also quite sensitive politically. It therefore feel that the Rohingya issues are better be addressed outssed outside the dynamic of Burmese politics. Independent actions taken on behalf of refugees must be understood as a reflection of such considerations. The tendency to keep low publicity on Rohingya refugee issues, of course, is not keeping them out of sight out of mind, but it was necessary. This condition may progressively change as general political situation in Burma gradually improves.
Refugee issues are undoubtedly emotional ones. The circumstances that lead to the refugees leaving their homeland, the ways in which they live in those squalid camps and the hardship they endured because of an obviously simple protection needs; all of these are emotional issues. Because of such sympathy refugee received, the most people and NGOs are reluctant to look the repatriation as a solution in the first place. Refugees, by its own nature of desperation, also look to any possible option with a great deal of hope and enthusiasm. It is the responsibility of everyone involved to tell the realities about the longer-term options, and not to ions, and not to raise un-realistic hopes to refugees. Ill-defined solutions may cause refugees of human sufferings like Vietnamese boat people. (Such argument, of course, should not to be used by the governments as a pretext to reduce their refugee intakes; the governments can still be generous for refugees who aspired to make resettlement. Point making here is that the solution for majority of refugee population is the repatriation.)
Looking from a different perspective, the organized repatriation of refugees can be seen as e seen as the empowerment to the refugees. The refugees are empowered so that they can exercise their right to live in their own country in peace with security (The term refugee in this paragraph may be taken as the entire group of exiled-Burmese, although some high spirited Burmese apparently do not wish to identify themselves as refugees. :-). The refugee constitutes, as in the case of Burma, a certain section of population who suffered from the most serious violation of human rights by the government. As for Rohingyas, the government employed state-sponsored expulsion as a deliberate policy to oppress refugees. A policy against such government's expulsion of its own population is the organized repatriation that assisted and monitored by the international community. The repatriation movements, therefore, represent the strife for the improvement of human rights in Burma.
Fear of setting precedence
It is common practice amongst the professionals comparing the varying treatment of refugees at the international level.international level. I have seen (for example, in a debate about whether Australia's detention of boatpeople be a lawful practice) the comparisons were made between detention practices of Rohingyas in Bangladesh to that of Burmese students in Safe Area in Thailand with detention of Cambodian boatpeople in Australia. Although the governments may surely look to less cumbersome methods in dealing with refugee problems, it must not allowed the governments to automatically copy these practices as an internationally acceptable standards. When looking at any refugee problem, I would think various factors such as uniqueness of the problems and the political climate should be taken into account. Attitude for support groups to be taken was that the willingness to strive for maximum humane standard of treatment for refugees within a given political realities.
New Influx and Problems at Grassroots Level
Recent events suggest that the central SLORC administration continuing to lose its power. Therefore different approach may be needed toach may be needed to tackle the human rights problem. When we seek for the improvement of the situation in order to reduce the new influx, one will needs to look at the problems occurring at the grassroots level. Although the SLORC is an obvious source for causing human rights violations, it is unlikely that the changes in behaviour of SLORC alone will make much difference to the situation. One example is the forced labour. The SLORC reportedly issued a secret directive in July 1995 to its local LORCs to change the practice of forced forced labour(see the DFAT report of Aug-95). However, existence of the continuing influx of Rohingyas in this year is the proof that the SLORC does not have good control of its local administrations. One may certainly need to look at the local LORC level if we are to successfully tackle the problems.
Cases of the confiscation of properties - such as the soldiers living off the villagers property in Karen state - can mainly be the problems at grassroots level. We continuously noticed the cases of the soldiers takiners taking basic food items, etc from villagers as early as 1994, in Karen Human Rights Groups reports. One report from ABSL/FTUB in India is so far as to suggest that the SLORC's foot-soldiers have to "buy" their own uniforms. It shows that the SLORC soldiers are not receiving good supply from the government and therefore causing such violations. These cases, again, are the problems at grassroots level which the SLORC possibly cannot control easily.
Forcible procurement of rice and other primary products is another foother form of problem which must tackle at the grassroots. Surely, the SLORC's political ambition (i.e. to make a show off and boasted upon how much rice has been produced under its administration) is main source of problem. However, the enforcement to such an unrealistic objectives without due consideration given to farmers may found to be the local LORC personnel (recent BurmaNet report about the situation of farmers in Irrawaddy Delta). This kind of problem require to be tackled at the grassroots level.
The restriche restriction of movement placed upon Rohingyas may also be limiting their ability to search for work in Arakan. This is another factor which causing economic pressure upon Rohingyas, most of whom are land-less day labourers.
The harassment made on the movement of National League for Democracy seems to have occurred at the grassroots level. Petty-minded hostilities, such as harassment on landowners who lease office space for NLD, seems to be the grassroots problem. Such cases sometimes leads to tragic consequences for ences for the members of the community. This kind of harassment may however be reduced if there is reconciliation at the higher-level.
Although it may seem too modest in terms of mordern governments agendas, the protection of above mentioned violations can significantly improve the life of Burmese population. Recent policy direction given by the NLD include the agenda for reform on taxation and purchase of primary crops. These NLD agenda are in consonant with our protection needs to reduce the influx of displaced people. The empowerment to the elected representives was thus suggested to enact and to enforce required legislation. This particular step should be taken if current ceasefire agreement and political settlement being completed successfully.
In sum, protection of serious rights violation as a solution for the refugees and displaced people is no longer adequate - as recent case of Rohingyas suggests. One has to look at the community development issues that must be implemented together implemented together with democratic institution building tasks. These protection initiatives will fall into a broader spectrum of human rights, i.e. Social, Economic and Cultural rights. Ironically, it is the SLORC who try to fend itself off from the international community's criticism about human rights by saying "human rights encompass [not only civil and political rights, but] economic and social rights. .... In our consideration....take into account all aspect of human rights". It remains to be seen how much the SLORC be willing to co-operate -- or becoming an obstacle -- to build peace and progress for all people of Burma.
1. Amnesty International, May 1992, Union of Myanmar(Burma):
Human rights violations against Muslim in Rakhine (Arakan) state.
AI Index ASA:16/06/92.
2. UN General Assembly reports 1990: Note on International Protection submitted by High Commissioner, A/AC.96/750, 27 August 1990.
3. UN High Commissioner for Refugees,The State of the World's Refugees 1995: In Sear Refugees 1995: In Search of Solutions, Oxford University Press.
4. US Committee for Refugees, 'Repatriation of Rohingyas: voluntary or refoulement', 15 March 1995.
5. Medicine Sans Frontieres report, May 1995.
6. UNHCR Information Bulletin, Repatriation to Myanmar, July 1995.
7. Australian Council for Overseas Aid, 17 August 1995; February 1996.
8. Australian Parliament Human Rights Sub-Committee publications, #36, Vol.5, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 8 August 1995.
Date: 26 Jun 1996 15:50:28
ASIA: NEW BURMESE REFUGEES POSE DILEMMA FOR UN AGENCY BANGLADESH INFLUX (FEATURE)
By Alistair Lyon of Reuters
TEKNAF, Bangladesh, Reuter - Amid lush green fields in sight of surf pounding in from the Bay of Bengal, Jafar Ahmed explained why life in Burma had become unbearable.
"Twenty days before we left our village of Inn Chaung, the military took me for forced labour," he said. "They said it was for 10 days, but they kept me for 16."
"They tax us and make us give donations, such as logs, to their requirements. If we can't pay, they take us to a Nasaka (border force) camp and torture us."
Ahmed, a 40-year-old labourer, said he had once spent 24 hours with his legs held in wooden stocks at a Nasaka camp.
The Rangoon military government has long denied reports of ill-treatment of minority Muslims, or Rohingyas, in its impoverished northern province of Rakhine.
Now Ahmed, his wife and three children are part of a group of six families sheltering i of six families sheltering in a hut on a Bangladeshi peninsula separated from their homeland by the broad Naf River.
They arrived in April after paying 500 kyat (about $A4.60) or seven times a day labourer's wage) a head for passage, including bribes to Nasaka border troops to look the other way.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that 5,500 Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh since March, while other relief agencies say there may be up to 10,000.
The influx is something of an embarassment for the UNHCRr the UNHCR, trying to meet its target of repatriating the last 50,000 of 250,000 Rohingyas who fled to Bangladesh in 1991 and 1992.
The UN agency, keen to anchor the 200,000 returnees to their villages and head off any fresh exodus, fears that any move to help the newcomers would spur others to follow.
"If we give food to this group, we'll attract 50,000 more the next day," UNHCR representative Canh Nguyen-Tang told Reuters in Dhaka. "We don't want to create a 'pull' factor."
Yet the hardships cited byips cited by Ahmed and other new arrivals appear identical to those claimed by their fellow-Rohingyas who were accepted as refugees after the original mass flight.
Bangladesh, at first unwilling to admit the existence of any newcomers, now says they are illegal immigrants fleeing poverty, not persecution, and must be deported.
UN officials said economic conditions for Rohingyas, mostly uneducated farm workers, had worsened after a cyclone in November cut rice output by up to 20 per cent. Rangoon helped push up push up prices by demanding the same rice tax as before.
"This two-way traffic of influx and repatriation has created a very odd situation," said Dick van der Tak, representative of the medical relief agency Medecins sans Frontieres.
"We're afraid that if everyone classifies them as economic migrants, we'll lose sight of the context - the reasons for their poverty and the whole human rights situation in Burma."
The UNHCR, yet to define its policy on the newcomers, hopes that its staff stationed in mainned in mainly Buddhist Burma's neglected Rakhine province can intercede with its military rulers to ease the plight of Rohingyas and encourage them to stay put.
"We have organised an information campaign asking people to return to their villages of origin and contacted the authorities to provide transport back home," Tang said.
He argued that compulsory labour, while an issue of great concern to the UNHCR, did not count as persecution of Rohingyas because it was prevalent throughout Burma.
At the same tt the same time, he said, Rohingyas are not recognised as full citizens, but only as "residents" of Burma. And they do not have freedom of movement, needing permission from the military authorities if they want to leave their home villages.
The 50,000 remaining refugees live under UNHCR protection in camps run by Bangladeshi officials. They may not work, or leave the camps without permits, but are relatively secure.
The new arrivals must seek shelter where they can and are vulnerable to summary deportation and abion and abuse.
In April, an attempt by a river patrol of the paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) to force a boatful of incoming Burmese back across the river ended in disaster.
The boatman jumped overboard in the dark, the drifting boat capsized after getting tangled in fishing nets and 15 people - five women and 10 children - drowned.
Anjuma, a 12-year-old Rohingya girl who arrived in the second week of May, said she had been gang-raped by three BDR soldiers who had previously ordered her family and family and six others staying in a village near Teknaf to return to Burma.
An examination by a doctor working for an international relief agency appeared to confirm sexual assault.
Major Lal Mohammad at BDR headquarters in Teknaf said a military investigation was under way. "If it is true that our soldiers were involved, they will be punished," he added. REUTER bwl
REUTERS: UN RIGHTS MONITOR FOR BURMA RESIGNS June 29, 1996
Yozo Yokota, a Japanese professor has rnese professor has resigned from his post as the U.N. human rights monitor for Burma, U.N. spokeswoman Sylvana Foa said onFriday.
Yokota will be replaced by Rajsoomer Lallah, an Oxford- educated judge from Mauritius, who has frequently served on U.N. human rights bodies and as a special rapporteur for the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Commission.
U.N. sources said Yokota resigned because of planned career changes in Tokyo as well as frustration at the lack of logistical support from human rights staff in Geneva.
Yokota's reports over the past few years were responsible for criticial General Assembly resolutions adopted against Burma's military rulers, who took power in 1988 to suppress pro-democracy movement and subsequently nullify elections.