Originally Published 2020-06-10 10:18:37 Published on Jun 10, 2020
Displaced Rohingyas and ICJ ruling

As nations around the world work to find a way to lift the lock down measures, the focus continues to remain on controlling the number of rising cases, enhancement of health capacities as well as recuperating economic activities. Amidst this, Myanmar last month submitted the most anticipated first report to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The report is regarding steps the nation has taken towards preventing further acts of genocide against the country's Muslim Rohingya minority as well as preserving evidence of the genocidal campaign seen in recent years.

If we carefully read the initial ruling, it necessitates Myanmar to avoid a set of acts under the Genocide Convention that indicate razing all or part of a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. These include not only killing members of a group (Rohingya in this instance), but also seriously harming them physically or mentally. The court further ordered Myanmar to ensure that its military and any irregular armed units under its control will not commit any of these acts, form any conspiracy to do so, incite genocide, attempt to commit genocide, or be complicit in genocide.

The submission of the first compliance report has brought great joy and hopes to the international community at large, but there lingers a question regarding the ground situation of the displaced people living in the open air detention camps since 2012 especially after two COVID 19 cases have been reported at Rakhine State during end of May.

Dark year

First, it may be important to understand that why these displaced people are living in camps since 2012.  2012 has been a thorny year where lethal sectarian hostility erupted between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims over the rape and killing of a Buddhist woman.

Details of the crime were circulated locally through provocative pamphlets incriminating the Rohingya muslims. Following this on 3 June, a large group of Buddhists in Toungop stopped a bus and viciously assassinated 10 Rohingyas on board while the police stood and watched the entire episode without intervening.

This led to the major violations in the Rakhine state where gangs from both communities soon created havoc by killing people, devastating residential and non residential places. Fearing that this violence may engulf other parts of the nation, the then President Thein Sein announced a state of emergency. The civilian power was transferred to the Tatmadaw in affected areas of the state. At this point, a wave of concerted violence by various state security forces against Rohingya communities began. The Rohingyas saw themselves being evicted from their homes, their land confiscated and their villages and habitations attacked by the military forces.

Thus, thousands of Rohingya Muslims affected are put in something resembling the infamous ‘concentration camps’. They are not allowed to leave the camp areas and denied proper food, living conditions or health care. This has caused spread of various communicable diseases and deaths within the camps. While some escaped or fled to other nations yet about 126,000 Rohingyas are currently somehow scraping off their existence within such complex conditions.

Camp conditions

If one investigates, it seems there is no drastic change within the functioning of the camps post COVID situation. Though lockdown measures have been declared nevertheless they displaced people are not equipped with proper shelters, water, sanitation or hygiene facilities or food arrangements. Overcrowding restricts the scope of social distancing and self isolation. On top of this, communal water points which is accessed by around 600 people and latrines makes it impossible for proper water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) conditions to prevail.

In terms of health capacity, there are only two government-run health centers with few beds, both inaccessible to those in remote camps, and part-time basic mobile clinics. Such centers typically suffer from a shortage of trained health professionals. They are often headed by poorly-trained medical staffs that perform only basic treatments. These centers also lack adequate medical devices, equipments and also medicines. In addition, none have COVID-19 testing capacity.

For those facing serious medical problems, obtaining an emergency transfer to Sittwe General Hospital is difficult due to restriction of movement and financial constrains. Only 16 percent of Rohingya in the camps reported receiving necessary medical care. According to Human Refugee Watch report, number of masks distributed within the camp areas remains paltry. Even there are instances where families have been asked to share a mask or buy it in exchange of one day’s meal. There have also been instances where though one is wearing mask but still monetary benefits have been asked by the authority. There remains fear that if COVID 19 cases increase within the camp areas proper treatment may not be arranged.

In addition, there is widespread food insecurity within the camp areas. Since the displaced people are not supposed to work outside, they depend entirely on aids received from humanitarian organisations. Apart from governmental oppositions, organisations like the World Food Programme (WFP) are faced with the ubiquitous dilemma of logistics, weather and internal strife’s, among others which is predominant to that region. This limits their ability to consistently provide food security to the displaced Rohingya.

Food insecurities lead to malnutrition as well as low immunity which is susceptible to rising number of diseases like tubercolosis, unknown fever, dysentery, etc. Thus, low immunity coupled with COVID and no treatment is definitively detrimental for these hapless people.

Furthermore, no internet connections have further disrupted chances of swift communication as well as adequate response. The humanitarian organizations have tried to pursue the government by providing letters to uplift the internet blockade due to the current emergency situation. However, no steps on such lines have been drawn as of yet. Misinformation and rumours have the potential to deeply aggravate the spread and impact of the virus. Thus, precise and reliable public health messaging and knowledge is decisive in preventing and controlling outbreaks.

Food for thought

Neglecting the displaced Rohingyas may tend to breach the ICJ ruling of not physically or mentally harming them further. Therefore, proper provisions need to be sought out to ensure that they receive proper health services, food and WASH facilities. Not addressing their concerns will reflect poorly on the government as well as the opposition parties.

Internet access must be granted as that may ensure proper information to the displaced people and will also help the authorities to keep tab on the activities within the camp areas. However, for ensuring all the above points political will is extremely crucial. Whether the authorities adhere to such measures is yet to be seen.

This commentary originally appeared in South Asia Weekly.

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Sreeparna Banerjee

Sreeparna Banerjee

Sreeparna Banerjee is a Junior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation Kolkata with the Strategic Studies Programme.

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