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Myanmar doing too little to ensure displaced Rohingya return

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Thousands of Rohingya refugees are living in Hakimpara refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. OCHA/Vincent Tremeau

UN agencies together with the Bangladesh authorities have appealed for $877 million to support hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, where conditions are still not conducive for their safe return, UN refugee agency chief Filippo Grandi said on Tuesday.

Speaking on the sidelines of the 2020 Joint Response Plan (JRP) launch for 855,000 ethnic Rohingya, and the more than 444,000 vulnerable Bangladeshis in host communities, Mr. Grandi urged Myanmar to take quicker action to help the displaced to return home.

“The solution continues to be in Myanmar”, said the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). “The problem is that things that need to be done there, to create conditions for refugees to return from Bangladesh into Myanmar, are too slow or not happening yet.”

In August 2017, a military operation in Myanmar’s Rakhine state in response to separatist violence prompted hundreds of thousands of ethnic Rohingya to flee.

At the time, then High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, likened the episode to a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.

Reporting to the Human Rights Council, he also cited reports of Myanmar authorities laying landmines along the border with Bangladesh and requiring returnees to provide “proof of nationality” – an impossibility, given that successive Myanmar governments have, since 1962, progressively stripped the Rohingya population of their political and civil rights, including citizenship rights.

Longstanding discrimination

At the current Human Rights Council session in Geneva, Zeid’s successor, Michelle Bachelet, noted that for over half a century, the policies of Myanmar had discriminated against religious and ethnic minorities.

Addressing Member States last week, she also said that the Government of Myanmar now had an historic opportunity to counteract systematic violations “by bringing its people together, as one”.

Listing the specific requirements of returning Rohingya refugees, Mr Grandi explained that they needed “freedom of movement, return of internally displaced people that are in camps in Rakhine state, respect of housing, land, property”.

Rohingya want ‘clarity’

They also needed “clarity on the pathway to citizenship that various commissions have indicated as being the fundamental step that needs to be taken”, the High Commissioner for Refugees insisted, in reference to recommendations by UN-appointed panels of experts.

Standing alongside the head of the UN migration agency (IOM) António Vitorino, Mr Grandi added: “There needs to be clarity in the minds of the refugees of what that means, in order for them not to be discriminated and to get eventually full integration in their own country, in their own society.”

In the months and years that followed the exodus from Rakhine state, Bangladesh has continued to host Rohingya refugees in a series of refugee camps in the south-east of the country, in an area known as Cox’s Bazar, along with host communities.

Highlighting the need for continued international assistance for Bangladesh, Shahriar Alam from the Bangladesh Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted that in the first 17 days alone after the exodus began, almost half a million Rohingya crossed into Bangladesh.

“We expect the UN Member countries to do more and work with me and do everything possible to put pressure on Myanmar to take their citizenship back…repatriation that is safe, voluntary and dignified,” he said.

Appeal provides for host communities too

According to UNHCR, IOM and the Bangladesh authorities, the 2020 appeal places stronger emphasis on supporting host communities that have taken in Rohingya refugees and fostering their well-being.

They need help with public service infrastructure – in particular, to reduce the impact of seasonal monsoon flooding – and access to sustainable livelihoods, along with initiatives to rehabilitate the environment linked to sustainable energy initiatives.

All Rohingya refugee households now use Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) for cooking, which has led to a staggering 80 per cent drop in demand for firewood, the UN agencies said in a statement.

Some 30,000 local Bangladeshi families are also included in the initiative.

The introduction of LPG, together with reforestation measures, has resulted in a remarkable “re-greening” of the areas in Cox’s Bazar District where the Rohingya refugees are living, the appeal organisers maintained. 

The appeal’s other objectives include strengthening protection for refugee women, men, girls and boys; delivering life-saving assistance to those in need and working towards sustainable solutions in Myanmar in line with the internationally agreed Sustainable Development Goals agenda.

Latest UN data shows that the 2019 Joint Response Plan was just over 70 per cent funded, meaning that donors provided $650 million against the $921 million requested.

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Human Rights

ILO calls on Belarus President to respect workers’ rights and freedoms amid protests

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The Director-General of the International Labour Organization, Guy Ryder, has called on the President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, to prevent human rights violations and “ensure full respect for workers’ rights and freedoms” during the wave of protests that have swept the country in recent weeks. 

In his letter to the Belarus President, Ryder urged President Lukashenko to release and drop charges against six trade unionists who have been detained by the authorities after participating in peaceful protests and industrial action.

He reminded the President that it is the responsibility of the Government to ensure a climate free from violence, threats or pressure against peacefully protesting workers and that any such allegations should be rapidly and independently investigated.

“I must urge you to do all in your power to prevent the occurrence of human rights violations and ensure full respect for workers’ rights and freedoms,” Ryder’s letter said.

He expressed his deep concern at reports coming out of Belarus on the arrest, detention, imprisonment and mistreatment of workers’ leaders.

‘No one should be deprived of their freedom or be subject to penal sanctions for the mere fact of organizing or participating in a peaceful strike or protest,’ Ryder wrote.

The letter recalls that the ILO has been working with the Belarus government, and the national workers’ and employers’ organizations, for 16 years, helping to address issues raised by an ILO Commission of Inquiry in 2004  which was set up following serious infringements of trade union rights and freedoms in the country.

Ryder notes that while there has been some progress on these issues, “the Commission’s recommendations are far from being fully implemented.”

The intervention by the ILO Director-General follows a request made by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

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Switzerland: Draft anti-terrorism law sets ‘dangerous precedent’

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A proposed new anti-terrorism law in Switzerland could set a dangerous precedent for the suppression of political dissent worldwide, a group of five independent UN human rights experts warned on Friday. 

The draft legislation, currently before the Swiss Parliament, expands the definition of terrorism and no longer requires the prospect of any crime at all, they said, in a plea for a last-minute reversal by legislators. 

‘Expansive’ definition of terrorism 

Citing international standards, the experts defined terrorism as the intimidation or coercion of populations or governments through violence that causes death or serious injury, or the taking of hostages. 

Under the bill, “terrorist activity” may encompass even lawful acts aimed at influencing or modifying the constitutional order, such as legitimate activities of journalists, civil society and political activists. 

“Expanding the definition of terrorism to any non-violent campaign involving the spreading of fear goes far beyond current Swiss domestic law and violates international standards”, said the experts, all of whom were appointed by the UN Human Rights Council

“This excessively expansive definition sets a dangerous precedent and risks serving as a model for authoritarian governments seeking to suppress political dissent including through torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” 

Other sections of the draft law have also raised concerns, such as those giving the federal police extensive authority to designate “potential terrorists” and to decide preventive measures against them.  

Expertise declined 

The rights experts had earlier written to the Swiss authorities, expressing their concerns about the incompatibility of the bill with human rights and international best practices in counter-terrorism.  However, no changes were implemented. 

 “While we recognize the serious security risks posed by terrorism, we very much regret that the Swiss authorities have declined this opportunity to benefit from our technical assistance and expertise on how to combine effective preventive measures with respect for human rights”, they said. 

 The experts called on Swiss parliamentarians to keep in mind their country’s traditionally strong commitment to human rights, urging them to reject a law which “is bound to become a serious stain on Switzerland’s otherwise strong human rights legacy.” 

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Human Rights

Burkina Faso: Over 535,000 children under five ‘acutely’ malnourished

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Members of family, who fled conflict, at their shelter in the Pissila camp for internally displaced persons in Burkina Faso. WFP/Marwa Awad

New data from UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has revealed worsening nutritional situation for children in Burkina Faso, with more than 535,000 children under the age of five suffering from acute malnutrition – an unprecedented level. 

Among them, some 156,500 children are “severely” malnourished, leaving them nine times more likely to die than well-nourished children, according to UNICEF

“The aggravating factors causing the nutritional situation of children to deteriorate are primarily linked to the displacement of populations due to insecurity, reduced access to livelihoods and reduced access to health care and nutrition,” said James Mugaju, UNICEF Deputy Representative in Burkina Faso.  

“The coronavirus pandemic has had a brutal impact on households and their ability to provide for the basic needs of their children. Children are paying the highest price, facing a triple crisis: security, health and food,” he added. 

Burkina Faso, a landlocked country in west Africa, has over one million internally displaced persons – 60 per cent of whom are children, and 3.3 million suffer from acute food insecurity.  

Worst affected regions 

According to the survey, the town of Gorom-Gorom in the Sahel region and the Barsalogho site for internally displaced persons in the Centre-Nord region are worst affected, where children under five suffering from global acute malnutrition recorded 18.4 per cent and 16.1 per cent, respectively. The figures exceed the World Health Organization (WHO) emergency threshold of 15 per cent.  

Equally alarming is the situation in Dori, Gorgadji, Bourzanga and Fada N’Gourma communes, all of which have a high prevalence of global acute malnutrition, ranging from 12.5 per cent to 13.6 per cent. Children in the Barsalogho, Kongoussi, Ouahigouya, Kaya and Matiacoali communes also have concerning prevalence rates of acute malnutrition, ranging from 8.6 per cent to 9.6 per cent.  

Areas where children are particularly affected by acute malnutrition are also those with the highest number of acutely food-insecure families, said UNICEF, calling for intensified efforts to ensure the continuity of nutrition services to provide an integrated package of prevention and treatment of malnutrition to reach the children in urgent need. 

“This is essential because good nutrition for children, from their first days and months, protects them from disease and infection, and helps them to recover when they fall ill,” said Mr. Mugaju.  

UNICEF response 

UNICEF and its partners have stepped up their response. Community health workers have been mobilized to travel to the most remote areas to screen and treat malnourished children at the community level, where they also provide advice on the best feeding practices for infants and young children, including in emergency situations.  

The UN agency is also supporting health authorities and is strengthening efforts to procure and deliver therapeutic foods, such as milk and ready-to-use therapeutic foods, to treat acute malnutrition. More than 52,600 cartons or about 737 tonnes of therapeutic food have been delivered to healthcare facilities and 51,685 children with severe acute malnutrition have been treated since January 2020. 

UNICEF Deputy Representative James Mugaju highlighted the importance of working together to support children.  

“Well-nourished girls and boys ensure good physical and cognitive development, which will give them equal opportunities to grow up fulfilled and reach their full potential,” he said. 

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