Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Burma’s rights group, HRW highlight refugees’ plight

Wednesday, 21 December 2011 12:33 Mizzima News

(Mizzima) – The Burmese government’s human rights group and the international Human Rights Watch have both noted the plight of Burma’s war refugees and the need for more help to be given to people displaced by fighting in Kachin State.

Burma’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) warned last week that thousands of children displaced by the conflict in the country’s far north appeared to be suffering from “psychological trauma,” according to an article in the state-run New Light of Myanmar on December 14.

A temporary camp for Kachin refugees who have fled from fighting between the government and Kachin Independence Army in Kachin State. An estimated 40,000 refugees have been displaced due to the latest round of fighting, say border humanitarian groups. Photo: Human Rights Watch

Fighting between the government and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes and prompted international warnings of a looming humanitarian crisis.

Burma, which has launched a series of reforms under its civilian leadership, announced in September that it was forming a rights commission after an appeal by a UN envoy for the government to probe alleged abuses.

The NHRC statement said more than 14,000 displaced people, including more than 3,000 students, are cared for in government-run areas. It did not mention refugees under the care of the Kachin Independence Organization in rebel-controlled areas, where at least 30,000 people are estimated to be living in camps, the campaign group Refugees International said earlier this month.

“From individual interviews, it was evident that almost all wanted to return to their own villages,” said the statement, which was released following a trip to Kachin State by a government commission team.

“The children appear to be suffering from psychological trauma and the adults seem to experience a sense of insecurity and diminished confidence,” said the NHRC statement. It said people in the 59 camps under state government care had their “basic necessities” provided for by the government and civil society groups as well as UN agencies.

The international Human Right Watch on Tuesday called for the Burmese government to make a long-term commitment with humanitarian agencies to provide relief to all the refugees, both under government and KIO care.

In early December, after months of negotiations, the Burmese government granted United Nations agencies humanitarian access to Kachin State, including areas controlled by KIA forces.

“That authorities granting UN aid agencies access to displaced people in Kachin State is an important step, but it demands a long-term commitment from the government and foreign donors alike,” said Elaine Pearson, HRW deputy Asia director. “The government and Kachin forces should ensure that the tens of thousands of displaced people in remote camps get the food and shelter they need.”

The KIO and local civil society organizations, such as Wunpawng Ninghtoi  (“Light of Kachin”), have supported displaced communities in KIA-controlled areas since June, with limited resources. In recent weeks, local relief officials said they had dwindling supplies and limited capacity, compounded by an absence of direct international aid and support, said HRW.

The Burmese government granted humanitarian access in early December to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which sought to coordinate a relief effort in KIA-controlled territory along the Burma-China border. On December 12, a convoy of six UN trucks carrying basic household and shelter items reached camps for internally displaced persons near Laiza.

The aid was insufficient, however, to make a real dent in the plight of refugees.

According to Kachin sources, refugees need food and non-food items, such as medicine, blankets, warm clothing, firewood and fuel, and adequate shelter.  On-site healthcare in camps is insufficient, nutrition needs of children and pregnant women are not being met, and there is a need for support to collect data about humanitarian conditions and needs.

On December 10, Burmese President Thein Sein issued a request for the army to cease attacks against the KIA, specifying that troops should only fire in self- defense. It is unclear whether Burmese army units in Kachin State have heeded the message, since local sources said fighting continued as recently as December 20.

Many Kachin civilians who have fled the fighting say they also particularly fear human rights violations by the Burmese army. Since June, the army in Kachin State has committed extrajudicial killings, deliberate and indiscriminate attacks on civilians, rape, forced labor, and the pillaging of villages, according to reports by the KIA and outside groups. The Burmese army razed several villages, at least two of which were burned to the ground on December 16, after Thein Sein requested a unilateral cease-fire, according to the HRW statement.

Because tens of thousands of people were forced to flee their homes and farms during the planting season and were unable to plant their crops, food is expected to become even scarcer, if more humanitarian aid doesn’t materialize soon.

“We couldn’t plant anything because the war started,” said a 70-year-old displaced woman from Bum Seng village interviewed by HRW in early August.  She said that only three of 38 families in her village were able to plant their rice before the fighting started. “This means we’ll have a serious problem.... We don’t know what to do. If we cannot go back, we will try our best to survive. Either way we won’t have rice.”

A local humanitarian worker told HRW in November, “The immediate needs and long-term needs are food and food security.… Shelter is another big problem now, and medication. In [the largest camp outside Laiza] there’s a huge camp but no hospital. We are trying to build a 15-bed hospital. It’s a small clinic. Doctors are not there. Only small-qualified nurses trained here. They can only provide basic medications. Also it is winter. It is very cold.”

HRW noted that under international humanitarian law, the government is responsible for meeting the humanitarian needs of the war-affected population. Parties to an internal armed conflict – here the Burmese government and the KIA – must allow humanitarian relief to reach civilian populations that need food, medicine, and other items essential to their survival.

If the government is unable to meet this obligation fully, it must allow impartial humanitarian agencies to do so on its behalf. Parties to a conflict must ensure the freedom of movement of humanitarian relief personnel, and only in cases of military necessity may their activities or movements be temporarily restricted.

The UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement provide authoritative standards for the obligations of governments to internally displaced persons. Under the principles, the authorities are to provide displaced people “at a minimum” with safe access to essential food and potable water, basic shelter and housing, appropriate clothing, and essential medical services and sanitation. Many of these needs persist in Kachin State.

“Kachin’s highly vulnerable population remains in need of a sustained and coordinated relief operation,” Pearson said. “Many Kachin civilians in remote areas are still desperately in need of food, warm clothing, improved shelter and access to medical care.”

HRW called on the Burmese military and the KIA to respect international humanitarian law, end abuses against the civilian population, and ensure safe and unimpeded humanitarian access across Kachin State.

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