The United Nations’ newest effort to address large-scale refugee flows and migration, adopted last month in New York, has left out at least one highly vulnerable group—internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Southeast Asia, say disappointed human rights experts and activists.
The adoption of the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants on Sept. 19, in which U.N. member states agreed to protect the rights of refugees and migrants and share responsibility for large movements on a global scale, will have little or no effect on IDPs in Southeast Asia, especially Muslim Rohingyas forced into camps in their native Myanmar and scattered across the region.
The stateless Rohingya have been called the most persecuted minority in the world, and some rights groups contend they are the victims of state-sponsored genocide because of the intense persecution by majority Buddhists and officials of a military government long known for brutality that was replaced by a civilian administration only six months ago.
Rights groups point out that while the declaration is intended to address the millions fleeing recent wars, especially the raging conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, it has failed to grasp an opportunity to include concrete measures to help IDPs such as the 1.1 million Rohingya who mostly live in the Southeast Asian country’s coastal Rakhine state, also known as Arakan state.
“The declaration was, frankly speaking, a response to political pressure emanating from the ongoing/proxy war in Syria rather than the long-running problems in Myanmar, which since the start of the Syrian civil war, have failed to make headlines in the West,” wrote said Steven Kiersons, team lead for Myanmar at The Sentinel Project, in an email.
“If it has any effect on the situation in Myanmar and Southeast Asia in general, it is at the very least an acknowledgement that the current system for handling migrants and refugees is systematically dysfunctional and relies more on stemming the flow of people than addressing the root causes of migrations,” said Kiersons, whose Canada-based nonprofit organization focuses on the prevention of genocide.
The Rohingya, victims of an obscure conflict in a country that had largely shut itself off from the world for decades, briefly grabbed world news headlines in 2012, after an outbreak of communal violence killed hundreds and led many thousands to become refugees within Myanmar or take dangerous boat trips to other Southeast Asian countries.
Four years on, their fate remains precarious, amid renewed tensions in the wake of an armed attack on Oct. 9 on Myanmar guards on the country’s border with Bangladesh that has sparked retaliatory violence, leaving more than 40 people dead and sending thousands of frightened villagers fleeing their homes for cities.
Rafendi Djamin, director of Amnesty International’s South East Asia and the Pacific Regional Office based in Bangkok, calls the New York Declaration a “token gesture” that will have little impact on the lives of refugees fleeing conflict and persecution in Southeast Asia or elsewhere.
“Instead of announcing clear and concrete steps towards ending the refugee crisis, world leaders chose to abscond any real responsibility towards reaching a solution,” he told RFA.
Djamin noted that U.N. members states had discussed including internally displaced communities in the declaration, but in the end decided not to because they thought that it would make the document’s scope too broad.
While the main responsibility for protecting IDPs lies with national authorities, U.N. member states must push the Myanmar government to ensure that the Rohingya and other displaced people have full and unrestricted access to humanitarian assistance and that efforts to resettle them are conducted voluntarily, safely and with dignity, he said.
“It is also important for the international community to address the root causes—which include discrimination and violence—that have forced both Rohingya refugees and IDPs to flee their homes,” he said.
Tangible programs necessary
The declaration, which was adopted during the U.N.’s first-ever high-level summit on the issue of migrants and refugees by heads of state and government, U.N. leaders, and representatives from civil society, the private sector, international organizations, and academia, mentions IDPs three times in general terms. But they are not addressed in the section on commitments, human rights advocates pointed out.
Myra Dahgaypaw, acting executive director of the Washington-based U.S. Campaign for Burma, said she sees no positive impact from the declaration as written on paper and notes that not only the Rohingya, but other people in Myanmar are routinely displaced and become refugees due to fighting or the confiscation of their land by the national army and conflicts with the country’s numerous armed ethnic groups.
“[Unless] the U.N. and the stakeholders are willing to implement some tangible programs specifically for the affected communities, the declaration will only be a gesture,” she wrote in an email.
“If the U.N. would like to see tangible results, the U.N. and its stakeholders must create specific programs that are measurable, work with local community leaders by going on the ground, speaking with the affected community, collecting information and conducting need assessments directly,” she said.
Daniel Sullivan, senior advocate at Washington-based Refugees International who focuses on Myanmar, agrees that the New York Declaration will have little immediate impact on migrants and refugees in Southeast Asia because of its lack of accountability.
“If there is one major disappointment with the New York Declaration, it is that it does not provide for accountability for states that do not live up to their commitments.”
“It is good that IDPs are mentioned in the declaration, even if not being addressed in the commitments, but if it does not lead to future efforts to explicitly address the challenges of IDPs, then it will be a massive shortcoming that will undermine not only the security of IDPs, but the commitments to addressing refugees as well,” Sullivan told RFA from Bangkok where he is completing a research mission on Rohingya in Malaysia and Thailand.
It’s necessary for actual reform to be implemented to have an impact on IDPs like the Rohingya as the Malaysian government and UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency, have done to tackle complex migration and refugee resettlement issues, he said.
“If put into effect, it could lead to implementation of ideas like granting work permits to refugees, providing education, and better access to health care,” Sullivan said.
“These would lead to substantive improvement for refugees in Malaysia, including at least 50,000 Rohingya now living there” he said. “Ideally, the commitments in the New York Declaration will help add pressure for such ideas to move forward.”
‘Blatant restrictions on human rights’
Most of Myanmar’s Buddhist majority considers the Rohingya to be illegal migrants from neighboring Bangladesh, though many have lived in the country for generations.
The country’s 1982 Citizenship Law effectively renders the Rohingya stateless by prohibiting them from holding Myanmar citizenship. This policy denies them basic rights, freedom of movement, and access to social services and education.
“In the case of the Rohingya in Myanmar, we are talking about blatant restrictions on human rights,” Sullivan said. “There is a need for freedom of movement, unrestricted humanitarian access, and, in the longer term, addressing the status of Rohingya as stateless due to Myanmar’s citizenship laws.”
“Addressing statelessness is included among the New York Declaration’s commitments, so, in theory, should cover the Rohingya.”
Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, also cast doubt on the impact of the New York Declaration.
“The declaration has welcome aspirations but no mechanisms for monitoring and implementation,” he told RFA.
“There should be a binding convention on the rights and treatment of IDPs, with monitoring and public annual reports naming and shaming countries which don’t comply, including those who haven’t signed the convention,” Farmaner said.
Tens of thousands of Rohingya were displaced following communal violence with Rakhine Buddhists in 2012 that left more than 200 people dead. Afterwards, about 140,000 Rohingya were forced into dozens of IDP camps, where about 120,000 remain today in a state of limbo.
Since 2012, more than 170,000 mostly Rohingya have fled Myanmar and the border areas of Bangladesh by sea to escape ongoing abuses. But many have fallen into the hands of human traffickers in other Asian countries, according to Fortify Rights, a Southeast Asia-based group that seeks to prevent and remedy human rights violations.
The declaration also alludes to obligations under international law when it comes to IDPs, said Djamin. It says: "While some commitments are mainly applicable to one group, they must also be applicable to the other.”
Farmaner noted that Myanmar’s new civilian-led government has retained restrictions on humanitarian aid to Rohingya IDPs that were put in place by the military junta that ruled the country for 50 years until 2011.
“People are dying as a result,” he said. “Rohingya IDPs need international protection in their own country just as much as refugees who flee abroad.”
Slow-moving and stagnant
Likewise, Wakar Uddin, director general of the Arakan Rohingya Union, believes that the New York Declaration will have little or no impact on refugees and migrants in and from Myanmar, saying that such efforts are slow-moving at best.
The nonprofit umbrella organization represents various Rohingya groups worldwide and seeks to find a political solution to the issues they face, including human rights violations and the denial of citizenship.
He calls the Rohingya issue a “truly humanitarian disaster” and laments that it was not included in the New York Declaration.
“Absolutely, it should have been included,” he wrote via email. “Most countries in this declaration are preoccupied with the issues in Syria, Iraq, and Palestine, which involve several millions refugees and IDPs. “These have apparently overshadowed the smaller groups elsewhere in the world, but it shouldn’t have happened that way.”
Uddin also believes the Rohingya issue was left out of the declaration for political reasons, because many of the countries that have spoken out against their treatment in the past have now stopped because they trust the new civilian government, led by state counselor and de facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi, to address the matter.
The UNHCR has maintained limited operations with small units in the northern part of Rakhine state but cannot deliver necessary assistance to the people because of its limited presence and restrictions that were first put in place by the junta-led government.
The UNHCR’s handing of Rohingya refugees in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh has been much better than its dealings with IDPs in Rakhine, said Uddin.
“Nonetheless, there may be some improvement of these issues in Myanmar not because of the New York Declaration, but due to the emerging unilateral efforts by Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD-led government to address the root causes of the migrants, refugees, and IDP issues in and from Myanmar,” Uddin said.
Firm and full engagement
In late August, Aung San Suu Kyi formed a nine-member Rakhine Advisory Commission tasked with examining humanitarian and development issues, access to basic services, the assurance of basic rights, and the security of all who live in Rakhine.
However, her appointment of former U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan and two other foreign dignitaries to the panel triggered opposition from Rakhine Buddhists and the state’s Arakan National Party, which has called for the commission’s disbandment. These groups, which have led the hostility against the Muslim Rohingya, say they believe the foreign members will automatically side with the Rohingya and turn a domestic issue into an international one.
“Regardless of the Rohingya citizenship argument from either side, the Rohingya victims in the IDP camps must be returned to their original homes in their respective townships,” Uddin wrote.
“The United Nations must engage fully and firmly with the government of Myanmar for the immediate repatriation of the Rohingya IDPs,” he said.
U.N. officials said more must be done collectively by the organization’s member states to deal with the forced displacement of people.
“The New York Declaration represents a global recognition that no one state can address this issue on its own. We must share responsibilities,” U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson told reporters on the sidelines of the summit for refugees and migrants.
“Migration must be a choice, not a necessity,” he said. “We must address the root causes of forced displacement.”
Helen Clark, head of the United Nations Development Programme, which seeks to wipe out poverty in the world, told journalists on the sidelines of the annual Social Good Summit in New York on Sept. 18, the day before the New York Declaration was adopted, that the international community needs to give more voice to IDPs.
Global leaders and grassroots activists discussed the impact of technology and new media on social initiatives worldwide at the two-day conference held annually during U.N. General Assembly week.
Clark, a former prime minister of New Zealand, noted that the summit’s outcomes would not “go anywhere near” a rewriting of the U.N. Refugee Convention of 1951 or address the issue of IDPs, but she hoped that it would raise awareness among leaders and ideally lead to more practical support for refugees in terms of funding.
“This summit isn’t dealing with the internally displaced, but they are a significant proportion of those who are forcibly displaced, so that tells us that there’s work to expand this conversation to deal with that specific group of people,” she said.
Most Southeast Asian nations, including Myanmar, are not signatories to the U.N. Refugee Convention of 1951, which defines the term “refugee,” outlines the rights of the displaced, and sets out the legal obligations of U.N. member states to protect them.
“It’s great that there’s the convention on refugees…but the internally displaced—they need voices, they need attention as well, so that’s a conversation that must happen,” said Clark.
Three days later, Clark and others issued an open letter to U.N. member states, calling on governments and world leaders to do more to support IDPs alongside refugees and migrants.
Research for this story was supported by a fellowship from the International Center for Journalists and the United Nations Foundation.