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Are Rohingyas protected in countries that did not sign the 1951 refugee convention?

Bayes Ahmed5 October 2021

Rohingyas are a predominantly Muslim minority from the Rakhine State (former Arakan) of Myanmar (former Burma). Since they are not recognised as citizens by the Myanmar authority, Rohingyas have faced widespread discrimination forcing more than one million of them to flee their country since 1970. The United Nations (UN) labelled the Rohingyas as the “world’s most persecuted minority“. In August 2017, killings, rape, torture and other massive human rights violations resulted in ethnic cleansing, which forcibly displaced Rohingyas, mainly to South and Southeast Asian countries. The case is currently under investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) (The Gambia v. Myanmar on violations of the Convention against Genocide)

In September 2021, over 900,000 Rohingyas were registered with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and living in camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. There were also some Rohingyas living in Saudi Arabia, India and Malaysia. However, the exact numbers of displaced Rohingyas worldwide are uncertain since many are not registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Moreover, none of these host countries is signatories of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951) nor have national asylum legislations. Consequently, the Rohingya – stateless people who enter these countries mostly undocumented – are classified as irregular migrants under their migration legislation. In this blog post, we discuss how Rohingyas are protected in these countries, considering the role of  UNHCR and new developments in the global asylum regime with the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) and the Global Refugee Forum (GRF) framework. The military coup in Myanmar on February 01, 2021, may initiate a new influx of Rohingya (and other) refugees to these host countries and prevent future possibilities of their safe and voluntary return to Myanmar.

UNHCR and the protection of Rohingyas in national cases

Bangladesh is the country most affected by the latest Rohingya exodus. The country shelters Rohingya refugees in camps in Cox’s Bazar in south-eastern Bangladesh. UNHCR, together with other UN agencies, international non-governmental organisations (NGO) and local organisations, have provided relief and services to this refugee population. While the Government of Bangladesh has recognised Rohingyas as prima facie refugees in previous influxes like 1991-1992, Rohingyas that entered the country after 2017 are classified as Forcibly Displaced Myanmar Nationals (FDMN). Bangladesh is granting physical protection for Rohingyas. They have access to medical care, shelter, education, food and essential supplies. However, Rohingyas have no right to work and free movement inside Bangladesh. The right to higher education is also limited in the camps. The support to the Rohingya population is highly dependent on international aid, which makes the current situation in Bangladesh unsustainable in the long term. The ongoing pandemic could also affect the funding to the Rohingya response in Bangladesh. 

In Saudi Arabia, India, and Malaysia, UNHCR registers refugees and conducts refugee status determination following its mandate to identify people in need of international protection. UNHCR identification cards allow refugees to stay in these countries, which prevents the risk of refoulement. However, being recognised as refugees by UNHCR does not grant them access to fundamental rights available to nationals such as education, healthcare, work and free movement. UNHCR Help webpage of Saudi Arabia recalls that “Registering with UNHCR, even if recognised as a refugee, does not give the applicant any special status […] Registration with UNHCR does not mean the applicant will have the right to public healthcare, education, and employment“. In some countries, such as India, refugee children between 6 and 14 years old have access to education. All refugees have access to healthcare. In Malaysia, Rohingya children cannot access the local educational system because UNHCR refugee cards are not recognised as identification documents. Refugees pay higher fees than nationals to access healthcare but have a discount of 50% because of a partnership with UNHCR

UNHCR registered refugees have access to UNHCR services (e.g., learning centres in Malaysia) and partnerships. However, they are not legally allowed to work in any of these countries. Unlike the situation in Bangladesh, most Rohingya refugees are not in refugee camps and in receipt of aid to meet their basic needs in these countries. They have to work to survive, and they do so in the same way as irregular migrants. This situation puts them at risk of detention and even deportation. There were cases of detention of Rohingyas in Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, and India. 

Since these countries are not part of the 1951 Refugee Convention, they can adopt ad hoc approaches in recognising some groups of people based on their national interests. For example, Saudi Arabia granted residency to Rohingya refugees who arrived before 2011. However, those that arrived after that faced detention and are considered irregular migrants. This approach of providing protection and rights to some groups or nationalities put the Rohingyas in an unstable situation. Furthermore, agreements with the UNHCR and the current approach of protection may change at any time depending on the political will of the national governments, which may result in forced return and refoulement of Rohingyas to Myanmar.

These countries do not recognise local integration as a durable solution to the Rohingya refugees. Host governments fear that granting rights would allow refugees’ local integration and could attract more Rohingyas to their territories. Besides that, some of these host countries are categorised as least developed or developing countries facing internal struggles such as persistent poverty, illiteracy and inequality. Bangladesh – the country sheltering most Rohingya refugees globally (> 95%) – is the least-developed country facing environmental, economic and social challenges. Bangladesh does not have the means to guarantee local integration as a sustainable solution for hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas living in one of its poorest regions. Resettlement is an option only for Rohingyas registered with UNHCR in Malaysia.

Nevertheless, the number of refugees worldwide and Rohingyas in need of protection in a third country is larger than the resettlement quotas of receiving countries. Consequently, the Rohingyas’ host countries advocate returning to Myanmar as the only possible solution for this population. While this is also the preferable solution for Rohingyas, they wish to return to a place where their safety and rights will be guaranteed. Rohingyas need to be recognised as citizens by the Myanmar government and have access to rights, safety and security. Perpetrators of crimes against Rohingyas need to be held accountable too. Other human right treaties (Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in the case of Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia, and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in the case of Bangladesh and India) forbid host governments to return Rohingyas to a place where they may be subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Protection of Rohingya refugees and new multilateral developments on Asylum

On December 17, 2018, the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) was approved after a process of two years of consultations with different stakeholders (states, NGOs, individuals) coordinated by the UNHCR. As this organisation recalls, the GCR is a non-binding framework that does not substitute for the 1951 Refugee Convention and its protocol but builds on them to foster responsibility-sharing and international cooperation. Some Rohingya host countries like Bangladesh, India, and Saudi Arabia provided written contributions to draft this document. Although the GCR is not mandatory and does not mention specifically the situation of Rohingyas, it is an important protection tool for refugees in general with a clear mechanism of regular revisions that considers the situation of stateless people and discusses possibilities of international and regional cooperation to address forced displacement and durable solutions. 

Besides that, the GCR created the framework for the organisation of the Global Refugee Forum in 2019 when states, organisations, universities and individuals presented voluntary pledges and contributions regarding forced displacement worldwide. The pledges directed to the Rohingya situation involve: guaranteeing protection, safe childhoods and child-sensitive services with no discrimination (education, child protection, healthcare, and mental health and psychosocial support) for Rohingya children and host communities’ children; empowering refugee children through sports in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh; providing funding to UNHCR to respond to the Rohingya crisis; creating a working group on education involving actors in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh and Rakhine, Myanmar; expanding livelihood opportunities and empowerment for Rohingyas and host communities; improving the environment for Rohingyas including psychological support; granting funding to playful learning for refugee children; providing support to survivors of sexual violence; implementing a joint approach with the World Bank and the Government of Bangladesh to support refugees and host communities medical, nutritional and educational needs; advocating child-rights based solutions and the inclusion of refugees in national educational systems. 

Bangladesh presented one pledge to design innovative refugee solutions. India presented two pledges: committing to build capacities of states – including beyond neighbourhood (e.g., Africa) and reaffirming its commitment to building solutions together. Malaysia also submitted one pledge to promote the objectives of the GCR and the 2030 Agenda. Saudi Arabia pledged $1 million to implement the GCR on Yemen. Moreover, other States in the world did not present any specific pledges about Rohingya refugees to fulfil the GCR’ objectives of “easing the pressures on host countries” and “expanding access to third-country solutions”.

While these actions are essential for the immediate protection of Rohingya refugees, they do not guarantee the long-term protection of this population (against refoulement or forced return as previously discussed) or durable solutions. Besides that, the central host countries of the Rohingyas presented only broad pledges regarding the implementation of the GCR with no specific guarantee of rights or protection to Rohingya refugees. None of the host countries presented any pledges to become parts of the 1951 Refugee Convention and its protocol or create national asylum systems to protect refugees.

Recommendations 

Rohingya refugees are physically protected in non-signatory countries that are not currently returning them to Myanmar. Nevertheless, while Rohingyas may be recognised as refugees under the UNHCR mandate, they are treated as irregular migrants. At the same time, host countries perceive their return as the only possible solution, and their agreements with UNHCR may change according to their national interests, which put Rohingyas at risk of unsustainable repatriation. Besides that, while host countries were part of the Global Compact on Refugees, host countries did not present specific pledges on protecting the Rohingya population. Considering this, we propose two primary recommendations to protect the Rohingyas:

  1. The protection of Rohingya refugees is a responsibility of the international community and not only the host countries. The international community should pressure Myanmar to stop persecuting this minority and guarantee their safe and voluntary return as their preferable durable solution.
  2. If their safe and voluntary return is not possible (especially considering the February 2021 coup in Myanmar), the international community should follow the principle of responsibility sharing and implement other solutions to Rohingyas, such as the design of specific resettlement programs for this population and the adoption of complementary pathways for admission to third countries as described in the GCR including family reunification, humanitarian visas and corridors, educational opportunities and private and community-based sponsorship programmes.

Authors

Patrícia Nabuco Martuscelli, Social Science Research Fellow in Conflict and Migration, Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction, University College London (UCL).

* Bayes Ahmed, Lecturer in Risk and Disaster Science, Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction, University College London (UCL); Corresponding author: bayes.ahmed@ucl.ac.uk

Peter Sammonds, Director, Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction, University College London (UCL).

** The reflections are part of the “Resilient Futures for the Rohingya Refugees” and “Rohingya Journeys of Violence and Resilience in Bangladesh and its Neighbours” projects developed at the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction, University College London (UCL). We thank the funding of the Royal Society (Royal Society Award Reference: CHL\R1\180288) and the British Academy (British Academy Award Reference: SDP2\100094). 

Rohingya crisis anniversary: four years of genocide in Myanmar, four years of protection failures in India

Jessica Field26 August 2021


Yesterday – 25 August 2021 – marked four years since the start of a brutal military assault against the Rohingya population in Myanmar, which forced three quarters of a million Rohingyas to flee over the country’s borders. The deliberate, systematic, and extreme violence used by the Myanmar military to kill, sexually assault, and displace Rohingyas from their homelands and out of the country has rightly been documented as genocidal – i.e. violence ‘committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group’. Though this date isn’t the start of the persecution faced by Rohingyas in Myanmar (which has been ongoing for several decades), it was certainly one of the largest and most systematic of the assaults against the community in recent years.

August 2017 also marks an anniversary date for the deliberate scaling back of humanitarian protections in many neighbouring countries.

Over a million Rohingya refugees are living in increasingly challenging conditions in countries across Southeast and South Asia – denied rights, denied mobility, marginalised and – in several high-profile cases – refouled back to Myanmar, or prevented from making a safe landing to seek refuge. I have spent the last five years researching the humanitarian context for Rohingya refugees in India, and those years have been marked by a drastic breakdown of protection and basic humanitarian assistance.

Prior to 2017, Rohingya refugees in India – who number in the low tens of thousands – were able to register with the UNHCR India, receive refugee cards and visas, and were able to try to make lives for themselves while awaiting the opportunity for safe return to Myanmar. Then, in early August 2017, just a few weeks before the Myanmar military launched its latest large-scale assault on the community in Rakhine state, the Indian government declared Rohingya refugees within its own territory to be “illegal migrants”. This marked the start of a rapid deterioration of protection.

Image: The charred remains of schoolbooks. An entire Rohingya refugee settlement in Delhi burnt to the ground in June 2021. Photo credit: ROHRIngya June 2021.

 

India’s failure to protect and attempts to deport

In a recent Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion (ISI) briefing I co-wrote with Rohingya activist Maung Thein Shwe and ISI’s Natalie Brinham, we documented that, since the beginning of August 2017, Rohingyas in India have faced:

  • refusals to renew or issue immigration documentation
  • exclusion from national ID cards that are essential for accessing basic services like health, education, and banking
  • discrimination in schools and healthcare facilities
  • denial from Covid-19 relief packages and vaccine drives
  • arbitrary dismissal from work and the withholding of pay
  • sustained hate campaigns from vocal sections of the media
  • discriminatory and inflammatory anti-Rohingya language by prominent politicians
  • precarious living conditions, including fires that have destroyed entire settlements
  • and a significant spike in documentation “verification” exercises and arbitrary detentions.

Also in August 2017, the Indian Government issued an order to authorities to identify Rohingya refugees in the country, and ready for their rounding up and deportation to Myanmar. Then, in late 2018 and early 2019, the Indian government deported a total of 12 Rohingyas back to the country, all of whom were denied access to UNHCR. In March this year, authorities in Jammu rounded up at least 150 Rohingyas for “verification” and to initiate deportation procedures. Then, in April, the government made a failed attempt to deport an unaccompanied 14-year-old Rohingya girl across the border.

Forced deportation of refugees to a country where they are experiencing an ongoing threat of genocide is an egregious breach of human and humanitarian rights that flouts not just customary international law, but protections enshrined within the India’s own constitution. Moreover, Myanmar has got more, not less, dangerous over recent months. The country experienced a violent coup d’état on 1 February 2021, and is now headed by the very military that have committed repeated atrocities against Rohingyas in Rakhine state over decades.

Parallel legal proceedings

Cases have been filed against Myanmar for the crime of genocide – The Gambia v. Myanmar – in the International Court of Justice (ICJ); for atrocity crimes in Argentina (under “universal jurisdiction”); and the International Criminal Court has authorised full investigations into crimes committed against the Rohingya that fall within the Court’s jurisdiction (i.e. genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and aggression).

Cases have also been filed in the Supreme Court of India to block the Indian government’s attempted refoulement of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar. However, progress has been slow, with many worrying statements littering its progression. During a recent hearing, the then-Chief Justice of India stated that “possibly that is the fear that if they go back to Myanmar they will be slaughtered. But we cannot control all that”. This statement wilfully ignores the role that India’s deportations play in enabling atrocities.

Advocates working on behalf of the Rohingya community in India have also filed petitions to try and force the Indian authorities to provide the basics amenities that any human (let alone a refugee fleeing persecution) should be entitled to expect: e.g. access to running water, access to health and education services, basic public health facilities, and safe accommodation. Just as with The Gambia vs. Myanmar genocide case in the ICJ, these cases in the Indian Supreme Court are ongoing, and Rohingya safety and wellbeing in India continue to hang in the balance.

It is no coincidence that genocide in Myanmar and persecution and humanitarian failures in India are running in tandem. Amal de Chickera – co-founder and co-director of the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion – remarked in a recent webinar that “this is a moment of impending crisis… the marginalisation of Rohingya is part of a deeper, longer term erosion of the democratic rule of law in India and elsewhere in the world”.

Rohingya refugees are being deliberately marginalised through hate speech and discrimination, and then that marginalisation is used to frame this refugee group as a security threat and justify repressive actions – eroding the rule of law in the process. Relatedly, humanitarian assistance and the provision of safe refuge are presented as “gifts” to be enjoyed by select communities on the basis of (often discriminatory) conditions, rather than as basic rights rooted in a shared humanity.

Recognising all aspects of violence

The 25 August 2017 commemoration date must serve as a marker for all aspects of the violence faced by Rohingyas. It must continue to draw international attention to the persecution and suffering of Rohingyas by the Myanmar state as well as the Rohingya community’s need for justice, for citizenship in Myanmar, and for safe living conditions in their own country. This anniversary must also draw international attention to the huge humanitarian and protection failures of refugee host countries like India, where state-supported marginalisation, intolerance and anti-Rohingya hate speech are creating punishing living conditions and risk further facilitating genocide.


This blog is an adapted version of Jessica Field’s presentation at the 4th Rohingya Genocide Anniversary Commemoration event, hosted by Restless Beings on 25th August 2021 in London. 

For further reading, see briefs published by the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion:

Climate Hazards in the Northern Bolivian Altiplano

Bayes Ahmed14 July 2021

Written by Dr. Ximena Flores-Palacios, a Bolivian independent researcher and practitioner in sustainable development.

Tuni Condoriri Glacier. Photo: Leny Chuquimia, Página Siete.

The Northern Bolivian Altiplano is one of the most affected areas to the impacts of climate change and disasters. Vulnerable groups such as indigenous communities are the ones most at risk from climate hazards and are, in many cases, marginalized from socioeconomic progress. In order to prevent climate change and disasters from having further devastating impacts, it is necessary to close the development gaps that leave communities at risk. Without urgent action, climate change and disasters may push people deeper into poverty.

This region is located to the West of the Department of La Paz and covers an area of approximately 20,000 km² with a population of 2.5 million people (including the cities of La Paz and El Alto). A large part of this region is influenced by the presence of Lake Titicaca and the glaciers of the Cordillera Real mountain range. The altitude of the region ranges from 3,000 metres above sea level in the inter-Andean valleys to almost 6,500 metres above sea level in the peaks of the Cordillera Real, which is home to most of Bolivia’s glaciers.

The Northern Altiplano is particularly vulnerable to climate variability and the adverse impacts of climate hazards that threaten communities and ecosystems. The region is already experiencing not only increases in temperatures but also changes in rainfall patterns and the water cycle. This, in turn, will have consequences for biodiversity and high-altitude wetlands. Besides, the region is exposed to different threats such as changes in the precipitation regime, frequent droughts, hailstorms, frosts, and snowfalls.

The most visible impact of climate change in high mountain regions is glacier retreat. The IPCC reports that Andean inter-tropical glaciers are very likely to disappear in the coming decades, which will negatively impact water availability in the region. In addition to global increases in temperature, the greater frequency of El Niño in recent decades has contributed to rapid glacial retreat.

Pressure on water resources in the region is already high, with an increasing demand for domestic consumption, agriculture, and dams. Therefore any future changes in the hydrological cycle will have significant implications in the region. This aspect is crucial as the cities of La Paz and El Alto draw on water from several surrounding glaciers, and together these cities form a fast-growing metropolitan area that is home to more than two million people.

Aymara people have adapted to climatic variability and changes in their environment over centuries. In the process, they have developed essential knowledge about the local climate and the environment, and they have domesticated numerous crops that are vital to ensure food security around the world. People have lived subsistence lifestyles for a long time, and for them, there is nothing new about adapting to harsh conditions. What is new, however, is the extent of the changes and the effect these changes are having on an increasing number of people. Even though families have had generations of experience in creating mechanisms to cope with such variability, the impacts of these climate hazards are affecting them disproportionally and threatening their culture.

Rural people in this region rely on natural resource-based livelihoods. They are engaged in high-altitude agriculture and livestock, and the communities around Lake Titicaca also partake in small-scale fishing. Families keep and store a part of their production for their own consumption and sell the rest. However, frequently and due to poverty-related causes, farmers have to sell their produce which in some cases affects their food security. Non-farming activities and migration are risk management strategies that also help to diversify income.  Human mobility due to climate change has been rising in the last decades, as some people move in anticipation or adaptation to environmental and climate impacts, and others are displaced due to extreme events. 

Rural livelihoods are highly vulnerable to climate change and disasters in terms of agriculture and food security, water supply, biological diversity, the environment, health, and infrastructure. This vulnerability is worsened by (i) very low levels of investment in climate-responsive agriculture, (ii) inequalities in land tenure, with the exacerbation of smallholdings as land continues to be divided resulting in the overexploitation of soils and vegetation, (iii) high dependence on climatic variables in agricultural production, with the majority of farmers without irrigation systems, who depend on rainfall, and are highly susceptible to hailstorms, frost and snowfalls; (iv) accelerated agro-ecosystem degradation processes, and (v) water pollution by mining, industry, and solid waste.

Despite the enormous challenges associated with poverty, environmental degradation, climate change, disasters, and now the effects of COVID-19, people in the region are making every effort to thrive in their own environment, and to build the resilience of their communities to climate and other shocks. For these people, resilience is rooted in traditional knowledge, as their capacity to adapt to climate change and disasters is based on an in-depth understanding of the environment, social organizations and networks, and cultural values and attitudes.

Rural people are responding to climate change and disasters in unique ways:

  • To cope with climatic variations, people change and adjust their livelihoods. They diversify productive activities and continue to improve plant varieties and animal breeds, which provide a buffer against risks in uncertain environments. The ability to access multiple resources and rely on different land-use patterns contribute to their capacities to manage climate change at the local level. However, farming practices may also be forced to change as a result of reductions in water availability due to less rainfall and melting glaciers.
  • Traditional weather and climate forecasting are still used by Andean communities to make decisions on the management of their farming system and climate change adaptation. However, the intensity, frequency, and extent of climate impacts are challenging people’s traditional knowledge. It is necessary to promote community disaster risk management and early warning systems to mitigate the negative effect of climate change.
  • Traditional systems of governance and social structures are in place, and strong community networks are crucial for community resilience to climate changeLocal organizations together with municipal governments are central actors in territorial development. Public policies must ensure that climate action is designed in a participatory manner that enables the participation of indigenous communities and other marginalized groups. 
  • People are using migration as an adaptation strategy. There are high levels of internal migration from rural to urban areas of the country and international migration, especially among men and youth. Rural areas are populated by women and older adults who face difficulties in terms of access to land, reduced productivity, fragmentation of land tenure, and the effects of climate change, further increasing vulnerability. Although migration is now a new phenomenon in the area, climate change seems likely to become a major force for future population movements, probably mostly through internal migration, but also to some extent through international migration.

Although Bolivia is making progress towards sustainable development, the impacts of climate change and disasters remain serious problems. In order to address these challenges, it is necessary to deepen understanding of climate change vulnerability, adaptation, and mitigation in the Northern Altiplano and to enhance the adaptive capacity of Andean communities.

Leveraging traditional knowledge in climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction policies is not only essential, but it is key to increasing the resilience of communities facing the impacts of natural hazards and environmental change.

In addition to health impacts, COVID-19 threatens to further affect the livelihoods of Andean communities dependent on agriculture. Investment in rural agriculture is needed to help people become more self-reliant, mitigate the impact of severe events and increase the resilience of communities.

Acknowledgement: This blog article is part of the project “Climate change and migration in times of COVID-19 in Bolivia” supported by UCL Global Engagement Funds 2020-21. Special thanks to Alejandro Mamani and Cloe Barbera, the research assistants of this study. 

Connected Learning Internship: Accessibility and Inclusivity in Disaster Studies | Opening up the Conversation

Joshua Anthony5 May 2021

Authors: Eleanor King and Fran Kurlansky

 

In a world where our lives are increasingly digitilised, and there is increased awareness about curating accessible spaces and ensuring optimum representation of all people, taking on an internship working on facilitating accessibility and inclusivity was very important. This is even more crucial in a year filled with challenges created by the pandemic. Covid-19 has challenged educational providers to further enhance online learning, making it imperative for content to accommodate all learners, regardless of their identity and additional requirements.

Image 1: Photo ‘Studying’ by rhodesj on Flickr, creative commons license

For two months across December-January, we reviewed the content of postgraduate modules taught at the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction (IRDR): the Conflict Humanitarianism and Disaster Risk Reduction module, and the Gender, Disaster and Conflict module. This was part of an Arena Centre Connected Learning internship supervised by Dr Jessica Field and Dr Virginie Le Masson in IRDR. We were equipped with the UCL Inclusive Curriculum Healthcheck and the Accessibility and the Internet document, both of which provided a solid foundation from which to scrutinise and assess the  content of our assigned modules.

Improving Accessibility: Definition and Challenges

An institution providing digital accessibility means ensuring that documents and online platforms can be accessed by all students regardless of additional learning requirements. Features that all documents and online platforms should have inbuilt—but unfortunately often do not—include: tags to allow users to navigate through text and images; alt-text, so that readers with visual impairments can use a screen-reader to have images conveyed to them in detail and in context; and resizing text and implementing the appropriate contrast ratio between text and background. From a technical point of view, conducting accessibility checks was a challenging aspect of the internship. Whilst utilising the resources, including advice from IRDR PhD students who had completed accessibility tasks on other modules, and becoming familiar with the functions of Adobe Acrobat, for instance, the process of making content accessible can vary between documents.

A prominent issue was creating image descriptions (alt-text), especially if the document was image-heavy. Some images, such as “word clouds”, graphs, and tables, are very detailed and contain a lot of written information, so condensing high quantities of information into captions proved to be virtually impossible. Another issue faced was knowing whether edits, colours, and some images were simply aesthetic and could be removed, or functional and so important to retain. Not being the original creator of module documents (such as PowerPoints) made these decisions difficult, as context is often needed. These elements can place pressure on someone carrying out accessibility checks, as we found, not being experts in the field of Disaster Studies.

These were important challenges to face, however, in generating discourse about why accessibility and inclusivity work is important. While we were essentially working backwards, trying to unpick major flaws in documents that were not designed to be accessed by someone with additional requirements, it made the need for educating staff on accessibility requirements even greater.

The Importance of Accessibility in an Academic Environment

Currently, information about accessibility is disseminated among staff. Yet a problem can arise when that information is not made a priority for all staff at all times. Awareness of not only how to implement checks and corrections, but why they are necessary, must be prioritised by departments and the university, and a better system of providing accessible digital education needs to be explored. This way, staff can make digital teaching materials accessible prior to a module beginning, thus, making a more accessible learning environment for students to enter into. A deeper understanding of the need for inclusivity and accessibility is imperative if there is going to be a culture shift which then provides a safer educational experience for all students.

Enhancing Inclusivity: Definition

Working within the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction, it was also crucial to explore, using an intersectional framework, the inclusivity of the module content which we worked on. A term first coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, intersectionality provides a framework through which to understand how people’s different social characteristics—such as race, gender, or class—“intersect” to create complex oppressions. The framework is most commonly applied to feminist theory, highlighting that, for example, a middle-class white cisgender woman does not face the same oppression as a working-class Transgender Black woman, even though they both face misogyny.

Making Academia more Inclusive

In an IRDR teaching context, this requires an awareness of the effect of disasters on people of all races, genders, and classes, as well as ensuring the voices of those individuals are platformed. Rather than having a week on “women” or a week on “LGBTQIA+” within the module, a holistic approach to people’s complex identities and the way these impact their experience of disasters is not only a more inclusive approach, but it also provides a more thorough analysis.

Crucially, the UCL Inclusive Curriculum Healthcheck spotlights the ‘attainment gap’ (the discrepancy of achievement between students of different backgrounds). It notes how, through making a curriculum that greater encompasses the student body—that is, going further than celebrating diversity and actually creating modules that students can relate to—the gap can continue to reduce in size. There is a direct correlation between representation and achievement.

Image 2: UCL Curriculum Healthcheck cover & p.1.

Evaluating how both IRDR modules incorporated the stories of people from different cultures, ethnicities, genders and sexualities was imperative to ensuring that, as required in the Healthcheck, they captured a multitude of experiences, fostered inclusivity and ensured that content was reflective of the diversity of student experience.  In addition, checking that both modules facilitated the students’ sharing of their own stories and perspectives in a safe digital space would help to ensure that the students could voice issues in a supportive environment.

We were able to build on these analytical skills through conducting a critical appraisal of a guest lecture by Dr Virginie Le Masson on Gender-based Violence and Disasters. Utilising both the accessibility and the inclusivity elements of the internship, and working closely with Dr Le Masson, we delivered feedback from the perspective of students, and were able to draw on our own experiences as students navigating online learning to create further considerations for lecturers to take. For example, when presenting information about the experience of women in disaster situations, we advised it was also important to analyse the experience of trans men who felt they had also been victims of misogyny when coded by others as women.

Inclusivity was an important element of the internship, and this task exemplified this; we conversed with IRDR staff about how to deliver feedback in a constructive manner, how to cater to the diversity of the student body, and creating good support systems for both students and staff. It was a unique opportunity for a dialogue between students and lecturers, and meant that we were able to work in a collaborative way to create the best learning experience for all.

Learning from Experience: Holistic and Methodical Approaches

Having completed the internship, there are several things for us to consider in retrospect and to recommend for future practice. For the department and the university as a whole, we would advise that an important element of digital accessibility and inclusivity work is planning and time-management. For anyone assigned with making documents more accessible and inclusive, it is important to start working on these tasks sooner rather than later, experimenting with how much time you allocate a task and at what part of the day you work best until you find a rhythm that fits your individual work style. For example, the assignment may seem daunting in the beginning and could require some practice and further research. In this case, you may find that approaching it in twenty-minute slots to be more manageable. On the other hand, larger chunks of time may be more suitable if you find yourself wanting to complete a document’s alt-text in one session, for instance.

It is particularly imperative to work in a holistic manner. As accessibility and inclusivity work can be detail-orientated, the module leader or convener should keep the bigger picture in mind which helps to assess the content as a whole. This is particularly important in modules with lots of guest lecturers. Whilst each guest lecturer may include content written by women, it could be that each lecturer has predominantly platformed cisgender women, and the voices of trans women and genderqueer individuals are marginalized. Being methodical is key here, as is approaching the task sooner rather than later or retrospectively.

Working in a finite internship affected our experience of the work. 35 hours in two months is not a lot of time in relation to the tasks we were required to work on. What is most important in this internship are the skills we learned, understanding the root problems and what can be done to solve these—in this case: increasing provisions for technical literacy and a deeper understanding of what accessibility and inclusivity are, and why they need to be made more visible on a widespread scale.

 

Eleanor King is a postgraduate student at the Institute of Education, studying for her MA in Digital Media: Critical Studies. She is currently working on her dissertation on the dissemination of misinformation through social media. Email address: eleanor.king20@ucl.ac.uk.

Fran Kurlansky is a postgraduate student, studying for her MA in Jewish Studies. She is also working for UCL Human Resources as a Digital Accessibility Assistant. Email address: francesca.kurlansky.20@ucl.ac.uk.

Stop The Disaster! IRDR Spring Academy 2021

Joshua Anthony28 April 2021

This article is a summation of points and questions raised by members of the Institute for Disaster Risk Reduction at the 2021 Spring Academy.

The mid-afternoon sunshine passes through my east-facing window and strikes my laptop screen, where the faces of the Institute for Disaster for Risk Reduction shine back at me. It is not mid-afternoon for all: for some, they gather for the annual Spring Academy as the same sun straddles a different horizon. Due to coronavirus restrictions, we gather online, tuning in from around the globe, demonstrating the department’s widespread influence. Through activities organised by both the PhD students and research staff, we are here to engage with the diverse range of expertise in our department.

What can floods tell us about covid-19? Can the unsettling rise of water on the doorsteps of schools and hospitals inform the decisions we make during a pandemic? Using the UNDRR game, Stop the Disaster, as an illustrative tool, Qiushuang Shi and Rob Davis lead us through the process of emergency planning and management to answer these questions.

While some of us struggle to allocate funding for flood defences and deliberate over where to build the hospital in our virtual disaster village, one cannot help noticing the people that populate the little green boxes of grass next to the blue pixels of seawater. How would they respond to an early warning system, and would it work if it were a virus and not flood water knocking at their door?

A snapshot of the UNDRR game Stop the Disaster.

Once the unfortunate villagers are subject to the 8-bit flood water, Rob and Qiushuang move us on to discuss what we have learnt. There is a consensus between us that communication is vital to affect successful disaster risk reduction—across all hazards. No early warning system or public health advice it worth it if the information is not widespread and consistent and the risks properly conveyed; or if there are significant economic, cultural, political or societal conditions—such as gender structures—that inhibit this process or adherence to it. Prior knowledge and experience of a hazard within a society (or lack thereof) is likely to alter the perception of, trust, and response to the message, not to mention the political will to support and fund emergency resources and planning initiatives, which could be assisted by media initiatives.

The visceral threat of quick onset hazards may put the screws on emergency fund release at showtime, but what of slower hazards for which there is ample time to plan? For some in the world, climate change is a distant reality, while for others it is an immediate threat. Uncertainty plays a key role in the way we respond to hazards—in scientific calculations (such as for early warning systems) or in individual perceptions and acceptance of risk.

We can see that, though the propagation and imagery of flood water and coronavirus—or any hazard, for that matter—may differ, there is an unavoidable factor underlying the multitude of research topics across the Institute of Risk and Disaster Reduction’s members: vulnerability. Indeed, the most contrarian of us posit that one could approach disaster risk reduction entirely from a vulnerability perspective. This notion hangs in the balance. We move on to the next stage of the session: multi- and cascading-hazard scenarios

There are places unfortunate enough to be subject to multi-hazard events. Even now, as we live through COVID-19, one member notes, the HIV and AIDs epidemic that gained notoriety in the 1980s still affects millions of people. As we have seen over the past year, floods, forest fires, earthquakes, disease outbreaks—you-name-it—do not rest for each other, and all the while the climate still changes. Mitigation, preparedness and response procedure efforts must consider multi-hazard scenarios, and not be subject to a “flavour-of-the-month” approach to disaster risk reduction. Critical infrastructure may be pliable up to a point and break beyond that threshold. Existing and dormant vulnerabilities may be triggered under cascading disaster scenarios—otherwise interpreted as cascading vulnerabilities—as seen in the infamous triple-front attack on Tohoku in 2011, which manifested in a combination of an earthquake, a tsunami and a nuclear meltdown. The complexities of multi- and cascading-hazard scenarios are vast; one must look for interconnected and parallel vulnerabilities that transect all hazards in order to tackle the challenges. The importance of transdisciplinary research and collaboration of individual expertise are highlighted further by these situations.

Even when two hazards do not strike in unison, emergency planners must consider the impacts of a prior hazard on material and human resources for the next one. Under a changing climate, goalposts shift; resource allocation and size may change, funding options may have to be reconsidered. An example of a way to make use of existing resources in a multi-hazard scenario is suggested in adapting training facilities for one type of hazard to accommodate multiple. As we consider the way planning and management needs are altered in response to multi-hazard and cascading scenarios, one asks a question that should follow all disasters: has the learning come through? In other words, are we more or less resilient now we have experienced the crisis? This is a question one can imagine asking as we optimistically search for a light at the end of the tunnel after over a year of COVID. The darkness associated with the proverbial tunnel is often oversimplified to a period of turmoil before the promise of the light, but one overlooks its poignancy in portraying the struggle that one experiences while operating within the shadow of uncertainty.

As we close the session, the faces of IRDR, hailing from a wide array of different disciplines, stare back expectedly at me for a summary of the session proceedings. Well, here they are. However, it’s made evident—as I scrabble to collate my mish-mash of notes—that one voice solely is not enough to tackle the challenges we attempt to understand here at the IRDR.

Happy (mostly) Faces of IRDR

“There is no other option” – The rationalisation of the local residents of Ukhia and Teknaf in Cox’s Bazar

Bayes Ahmed7 December 2020

Written by Dr Md. Touhidul Islam and Tanzina Rahman, Department of Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh.

The 2017 Rohingya exodus made Bangladesh a host of more than 850,000 new Rohingyas, becoming the fifth-largest forced displacement in the world.  They were forced to leave their homes at the Rakhine State in Myanmar and were also confronted with crimes against humanity, atrocities, and genocide. The host community in Bangladesh responded with compassion by welcoming and supporting them. The scale of the influx, however, has made a profound impact on the hosting communities, largely in the greater Cox’s Bazar area. The two Upazilas, i.e., sub-districts, of Cox’s Bazar – Ukhia and Teknaf – had to withstand supporting most of the weight of accommodating the Rohingyas. Now, the Rohingyas outnumber the local population in these two areas. So, the humanitarian impulse to help soon turned out to be a life-changing event for many residents living in these communities. The needs of the Rohingyas were officially addressed by the Government in Bangladesh, local and international NGOs, donors, and several UN agencies. However, the spill-over impacts, e.g., environmental degradation, price-hike, decreased wages and strain in the relationship between the host community and the Rohingyas just began to draw attention.

For the host communities in Ukhia and Teknaf, the results of this massive exodus can be described as a change in everyday’s lifestyle at best and a threat to survival at worst. They have dealt with an array of challenges in the economic, environmental, socio-cultural, and institutional spheres of their lives. Concurrently, they have dealt with the alterations in their own ways. They did not only try switching to the next best option available in addressing the changes in their lives but also rationalised their course of actions. What was the logic behind this rationalisation? The need to adjust had come from a mindset of lacking a better alternative.

We went on a field trip in 2019 to collect micro-narratives from the local residents of Ukhia and Teknaf. They vividly described the impacts of the 2017 Rohingya influx on their personal lives and how it affected their whole community. Some of their rationalisations are primarily centred on the notion of not having any other option than just to adjust – human life being equivalent to struggle and adaptation skills being a part of human nature. Having faith in one’s creator and surviving for the sake of one’s loved ones were other patterns of rationalisation that the residents described in their narratives. The notion of not having the availability of a better option and accommodate the situation can be an excruciating challenge for the residents, once their limit reaches the threshold.

Karim (a pseudonymous name), who is a 32-year-old driver and lives in Whykong, Teknaf, Cox’s Bazar, shared his version of life before and after the Rohingya influx. Though there were Rohingyas from the previous inflows, he did not know much about them before 2017 as they made no significant impact on his daily life. Once the unexpected turns of events such as drug dealings, theft, and robbery began to occur, he began feeling insecure. The impacts such as social deterioration (e.g. extramarital affairs and sexual harassment of girls) and cultural change were appalling to him. How did he come to terms with it? Karim says that there is nothing that he could do about it.

“We are a victim of this situation. We had to accept everything because we were under pressure. We have accepted all these as a part of our everyday lives. As long as the Rohingyas will live here, the problems will remain. So, instead of ignoring it, we have decided to deal with it.”

Karim has no real solution for other challenges he faces in every different dimension of life. He complains about the weather changing, and he acknowledges the animals being extinct. In light of all these changes, he sees himself as an ordinary person who is only capable of somehow adjusting to the situation which has been thrown upon them. People like Karim have subjugated to the physical changes in the environment and the socio-economic aspects like the price-hike of essential daily commodities.

A positive thought that he mentioned is co-existence, i.e., the acknowledgment of the host community and the Rohingya community living side by side. But making it a habit to adjust is crucial when there is no better alternative for them. Karim says: 

“Where can we go if we leave our village? We do not have any options to go anywhere. We are bound to accept these problems as long as they are living here. …They will not find a place to live in other districts outside Cox’s Bazar. They have found a place to live in Cox’s Bazar. I do not think there are any other empty places where they can be accommodated. It would not have been a problem if this was an issue for a few days. But, they have been living here for 2-3 years. Many Rohingyas have been living here for 30-40 years. And we have learned to adjust. I think we have to adjust if we live together. So it has become a habit to adjust to things. There is no other option.”

Karim has no other places to go if he leaves his village. He, however, reassures himself by saying the best option is to adjust to whatever living conditions they are being subjected to – a dark cloud of thoughts for the future hovers over him. He acknowledges the fact that the situation is likely to worsen. He narrates his thoughts on the future by saying:

“The current situation makes us think that the future will be very difficult. In the manner the prices of water, fuel, travel fare, and others are increasing this will be likely to continue in the future. We have to spend less on things sometimes, and sometimes we can spend as much as we like. We will have to manage according to what situation Allah puts us in.”

Karim perhaps knows where he stands on adapting to life after the Rohingya influx of 2017. For assisting the Rohingyas, his view is that plenty has been done and now it needs to stop. The dark future that he envisions does not always stay on his mind. He goes about his life, believing the future is unpredictable and anything can happen. Karim narrates his thoughts:

“Let everything go on like it is. We will see what happens later on. We will adjust to it when it happens.”

Karim chooses to adjust because he cannot find an alternative option not to. One may wonder if he will realise the flaws in his survival strategy!

Authors’ Affiliations:

Acknowledgment: This work was funded by the British Academy as part of the project,Rohingya Journeys of Violence and Resilience in Bangladesh and its Neighbours: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives” (Award Reference: SDP2\100094), supported under the UK Government’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF).

“Home is where the heart is!” – Rohingyas in camps and their idea of ‘Home’

Bayes Ahmed10 November 2020

Written by Dr Niloy Ranjan Biswas, Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Email: niloy@du.ac.bd

The perilous journey of Rohingya people fleeing their ‘home’ to Bangladesh, escaping persecution and genocide by Myanmar’s security forces, was full of quandary and uncertainty. They endured severe sufferings and pain in this journey to find safety and a new home. The brutal crackdown in 2017 forced more than 700,000 Rohingyas to leave their homes and embark upon a hazardous journey to neighbouring Bangladesh. According to Human Rights Watch (2017) report, the journey to Bangladesh was met with hunger, exhaustion and death. Crossing rivers, walking up and down steep and slippery hills across dense vegetation during monsoon rains with sore hips and swollen legs made it extremely challenging to survive. Furthermore, the Myanmar soldiers sexually assaulted Rohingya women and on many occasions raped them while they were fleeing to Bangladesh. Many of them had to continue their journey through the jungle with swollen and torn genitals. Many of them even gave birth on the road without medical assistance or proper medications.

Rohingyas’ journey from Myanmar to Bangladesh took up seventeen days. The route included either crossing the Naf River or taking a boat in the Bay of Bengal along the coast from the Myanmar shores. The desperate journey to find safety did not end for Rohingyas once they crossed the border of Bangladesh as they were stranded in the rice fields and marshlands and continued their journey to refugee camps cordoned by the security forces. For Rohingyas, arriving in Bangladesh after leaving behind their homes in Myanmar was just one part of their long journey. Their journey to escape trauma and horror in Myanmar has been juxtaposed with the misery of searching for a new home. What are ‘home’ and ‘homeland’ for Rohingyas? ‘Home’ has multiple interpretations for them.

The author visited the camps in 2019 to conduct extensive fieldwork in order to collect stories of Rohingya men and women. Those micro-narratives identify multivariate patterns of violence and trends of protection experienced by the refugees. It suggests that there is strong evidence of structural violence inherent in the society of Myanmar. Some of these examples are restrictions on movement and no access to health and education in Myanmar. The idea of accountability and justice are completely non-existent in the discourse of Rohingyas in Myanmar, which may need to be highlighted further as an important source of violence.

Hasina (a pseudonymous name), a 25-year old Rohingya woman, lives in a camp, near Thaingkhali, Ukhia, Cox’s Bazar. She was revisiting memories of her home in Myanmar and sharing her narratives with the author. She remembers her home in childhood as a quiet peaceful place. They could move out and roam around freely. She remembered they lived peacefully with Rakhaines (Buddhist communities) as neighbours. They used to get justice from representatives of local government. Her brother’s friend was a local government chairman from the Rakhine community, whose younger brother stole fruits from Hasina’s backyard and destroyed the field. Hasina’s father protested and complained to the chairman. He warned his own brother and apologised on his behalf. This was her impression of home when she was asked to share her childhood memory. Hasina said, “Home was peaceful, and everyone was living in harmony”. What has changed now?

Hasina was submerged under vivid memories—how her homeland, her village and adjacent areas turned into mayhem. She says that she was not able to study in Myanmar and will never get a good job. They will always live like their older generations —uneducated and unemployed.

In my home, we had no rights but we loved our home as we were born in that place.

Home is arguably the house and its surroundings, which is shared by her family and neighbours—both Rohingyas and Rakhaines. Has the ‘country’ ever turned into a ‘homeland’ for Hasina? Rakhaines are the significant ‘others’, and they dishonoured Rohingyas. Hasina says that they had to pay to get what they are entitled to get as citizens of Myanmar. Authorities do not like a Rohingya, who disobeyed their instructions, s/he would have to pay a monetary fine, or get beaten by uniformed security forces, or at least they would take ducks, chickens, cows, and goats. Prayers, Azan, and Madrasa—religious practices were also closed. Those who worked were barred from doing their work and even from leaving the house. According to Hasina, the security forces would go from home to home and torture and oppress women. No one could protest. They gradually began to inflict too much torture. They oppressed them in front of everyone, took their babies, or injure them and even burn them.

Her recent memories are full of bloodshed and loss. In August 2017, Hasina’s cousin (Bilkis) was raped by Myanmar’s security forces. Her parents were tied up and seven people raped Bilkis. “They were laughing and making fun of us as we are not human”—Hasina shared her experience with the author. Later Bilkis was shot dead and her body was fed to dogs. The girl left a child. The attackers set Hasina’s younger brother on fire. Hasina says that although she was not physically tortured, her relatives were severely tortured. She says they came to Bangladesh after suffering a lot.

Home is an existence of hardship and plight for Hasina. They faced violence every day in Myanmar. Her husband primarily worked in agriculture. He was beaten many times by the security forces for no reason. Once they had changed the fence of their house without informing local authorities, the security forces raided their house, beat them and asked for money. They took away their chickens, cows, and goats. “Hundreds of women were tortured by the military, their fathers, brothers, husbands could do nothing and everyone remained silent. No one could protest. “The family members could not save anyone and had to witness this by their own eyes. In Myanmar, the lives of Rohingyas are like the “lives of ants and lives have no value to the state”.

Home is where one can sleep peacefully. Hasina says, now in camps in Ukhia, she can sleep at night without worry or fear. “There is no fear such in Myanmar and I do not experience nightmares here”, she says. They are very safe in the camps of Bangladesh. Her children can go to school and mosques for prayer. “We are no longer slaves in Bangladesh as we were in our homeland”, says Hasina.

Home is where security forces do not scare Hasina every day. In the initial days at the camp, Hasina was scared to see members of security forces. It reminded her of her own country’s security forces and their behaviour. Later she realised that Bangladeshi security forces were actually providing them with safety and security. Camps were more like homes when security providers are not violators of human rights. Hasina repeatedly mentioned that if the military of her homeland behaved well, they would not have to worry about their lives.

Can Hasina return to her ‘home’ in Buthidaung, Maungdaw? She says her heart breaks into pieces when she thinks about her home in Buthidaung. Home is where she can trust people around her. She lacks trusts in her neighbours and local authorities in Myanmar. She rather trusts the people of Bangladesh who have been providing support in refugee camps. Hasina cheerfully acknowledges that she is happy to see her children playing, studying and going to the mosques without risking their lives. Hasina says she feels very good in camp’s plastic house as she knows none is coming after their lives. For her, a home is where she is not afraid of oppression and torture.

Hasina knows Myanmar is her country, nevertheless, she doubts whether or not it has ever been her ‘homeland’. They will eventually return to find their homes in ashes, if and when repatriation takes place. A big question, however, which was reflected in her face—has it ever become a home for her and her family? It seems she has lost her belief in Myanmar—its administration and security forces. Unlike Pliny the Elder suggests “Home is where one is most emotionally attached”, Hasina observes: “I lost faith in my country. I do not know where is my home and what will we do in future?” Her emotions are tormented that she will never have the same ‘home’ back in her ‘homeland’.

Acknowledgement: This work was funded by the British Academy as part of the project, “Rohingya Journeys of Violence and Resilience in Bangladesh and its Neighbours: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives” (Award Reference: SDP2\100094), supported under the UK Government’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF).

“Orphan Friendly Space” – The Rohingya Children in Refugee Camps

Bayes Ahmed1 November 2020

Written by Professor Amena Mohsin and Mohammad Atique Rahman, Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh.

“Alhamdulillah (praise be to Allah), I am in a safe place now, I miss my parents but I have survived” – Mohammad Ismail (pseudonymous), a Rohingya child living in Camp-13, Thangkhali Refugee Camp, Ukhia, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

It is an irony and a point of critical reflection for all of us as part of the so-called global society and humanity, as to why we need to create spaces designated as “orphan-friendly-space”, and children who have been orphaned [1] by state terrorism and genocidal acts in its quest for building a ‘nation’ find safety and security in those spaces and zones. The brutalities of our global and national systems have left little options for them. “Home sweet home,” a proverb that we grow up with, or the concept of “home” is lost for many children. Mohammad Ismail, a child who lives in a Ukhia Refugee Camp, spends most of his time in an orphan friendly space. He is one among the thousands of the ‘orphaned’ Rohingya children, who comes and plays with other orphan children in the Health Management Bangladesh (HMBD)’s, a local humanitarian NGO, “Orphan-Friendly-Space”. He was twelve years old in 2019. According to him, he spends most of his time there with other Rohingya children as he finds it a safe and secure space. 

Fear haunts him as he lost both of his parents during the August 2017 genocide, that was committed against his community in the Rakhine state. More than 712,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar during that period and took shelter in Bangladesh. Over half of them were children [2]. According to a report published by Save the Children, the speed and scale of violence that caused this mass exodus of the Rohingya were unprecedented since the Rwandan genocide in 1994 [3]. The report also mentioned that Rohingya children were the worst victim of this violence as they were targeted for brutal sexual violence, killed and maimed indiscriminately in Myanmar [5].  In the most severe cases, many of them witnessed brutal killings of their own parents.  

Ismail made friends in the orphan friendly space. Plastic toys and footballs scattered around the area that came as part of donations and relief for the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. While playing in the area, he narrated his story. He was living with his parents in Udong village. They were five siblings. His father was a farmer. They had a farming land around 10 Kanis (a Bengali measurement of land, 1 Kani = 1,619 square feet). His father and elder brothers were also fishing in the Dariya (Naf river). They raised cattle and chose one to sacrifice on the eve of Eid-ul-Adha. According to Ismail, it was two days before the Eid festival, his family and the villagers were taking preparation for the Eid celebration. At that time, they heard rumours that the neighbouring village got attacked by the local Buddhist Mogh community and the Myanmar military/Tatmadaw. Rohingya villagers started to move in search of safe places. Ismail got scared hearing this conversation among the elders but his father assured him saying that “no worries, you are in a safe place, Ismail, I will protect you”. However, his father could not keep his promise. The Mogh along with the military stormed into his village with firearms and sharp weapons on the day before the Eid. They hurriedly separated elders and young males and took them to the military camp. Ismail’s father was also taken away. Since then, he has not seen him. He is believed to have been killed by the Myanmar military in 2017. On that day, Ismail was terrified. His father was forcibly taken away from their home. As narrated by him:

“The Moghs were dragging my father, they had big red eyes, it seemed like that they were going to chop us all. I was afraid of dying. My mother held me and my younger brother very tightly and said I am here, don’t be scared you will be safe.”

However, his safe place existed only for a half-day as by the evening the villagers realised that their village will be attacked again by the military to take away the women and girls. Ismail’s mother decided to move her family to a safe place and joined the group of villagers with his uncles’ family. They started moving up in the hilly areas as they thought there would be a safer place for them but at night bullets came from the military check post, that fired aimlessly here and there. Ismail’s group members also got bullet wounds on that night. His uncle and mother decided to walk straight up the hill, and reached a “Muslim County” in Bangladesh, he went on saying:   

“We kept walking for three days straight. We joined around 2 to 3 hundred thousand Rohingya who also wanted to reach Bangladesh. When we cooked, the Army could suspect and find us from afar. They came and searched our bags and belongings. They took away the money, the jewellery. And then they went away. When we were on our way, they did not beat us as they normally did. But those who spoke out against them talked back at them – they were beaten. After three days we reached the harbour. My mother and uncle planned to cross the river and reach Bangladesh. On the night of 29 August 2017 when we got into a boat, we heard the sound of firing at night. I barely saw anything but heard the cries of wounded people. Our villagers urged the boatman to help them in crossing the river. My mother got shot on that night and she drowned into the river while she was trying to protect us from the firing. We lost 10 villagers on that night. On the next morning, we stopped at Shyamlapur. We climbed through North Nangkhongchhari (Naikkhongchhari) to reach Bangladesh. We stayed in Shyamlapur for five days under the open sky. Then we moved to Ledamma. There we stayed for 1 month and 5 to 10 days. Our days were even harder in Ledamma. After one month and a half of reaching Bangladesh, we got our space in the camp. In Bangladesh, I started to feel safe, but I had lost my parents in Myanmar. I don’t think there was any Rohingya left in our village in Myanmar.”

In Bangladesh, the local people supported them and gave them clothes, food and shelter. They had no belongings when they came to the camp in Muharram (the first month of the Islamic calendar). According to Ismail, Mizan Sir, the HMBD programme coordinator, looked after them very well. They did not know anything about this new place, but the HMBD kept in touch with them and provided them with some medicines. Ismail added:

We had nothing to do the whole day in the beginning. I had no books, no toys and no friends. So I went to HMBD’s place to see what was happening there. There they gave me some toys to play with other children. I was so happy to find some friends. I also feel safe with my friends. The driver uncle (HMBD ambulance driver) gives us chocolate every day. I know some of my friends also lost their parents on the other side of the Dariya (Naf river). Here in this place, we play and also attend the class. Our teacher Solim who has also come with us from Myanmar is so kind to us. Arif Sir and Mizan Sir from HMBD, they were so kind. They built fences around this playground. I feel safe now.”

Similar to Ismail, many other children in the orphan-friendly-space built by HMBD in Ukhia lost either their parents or their family members. But somehow, they seemed to have accepted their reality though it is cruel and full of uncertainties. They feel safe about their lives, but there is constant uncertainty, fear and confusion. They fear to be sent back to Myanmar though they want to go back to their homes. They used to go to the local Maktab, a religious school, and play with their friends. In the camp area, they live in cramped rooms. It is difficult to stay together in a small makeshift shelter in the camp so Ismail and other children come to the HMBD place every day in search of open space. According to them, the camp area is very hot. There is hardly any ventilation.

Most of the camp’s shelter houses are built on the slopes of hills by clearing forests and trees. There is hardly any tree shed in the camp where one can take rest during the hot summer days. So, these children look forward to coming to the open space where they can rest, play, study and pass their time together. This space is open from 8 am to 4 pm. Fatima (pseudonymous name), another Rohingya child, mentioned that she eagerly waits for the next morning to come to this place and be with her friends for a day. She does not want to stay in the camp, but then she needs to help her aunt with whom she lives now in cooking and fetching drinking water.  She has been orphaned in the genocide. Ismail also desires to get a new bag, books and a pair of sandals as the ones provided to him in 2017 are getting old. 

Mr Mizan, the programme officer of HMBD, said that they were the first NGO to arrive in this camp to provide medical treatment to the Rohingya community. They were able to set up their office in the early stage, they had some open space after establishing their medical camps. They thought that this open space could be converted into a children playground who were already in a distressed state. Therefore, Mizan and his team, when they visited door-to-door shelters of the camp, asked the families to send their children to their playground. In the mid-2018, HMBD decided to build a small shed for these children where they could sit and read books. By December 2018, it appointed Mr Solim, a Rohingya teacher, to teach the children. He teaches them Math, English and Religion in Rohingya language. HMBD managed to obtain free books with contents developed in Rohingya language. Currently, it hosts around ninety Rohingya children. 

However, more initiatives to be undertaken to create spaces for children for their mental and physical wellness. It is notable that among the Rohingya refugees, 55% are children and 4% of the household are child-headed. Children who eagerly wait for their time in the orphan-friendly-space have fractured lives. They lost their parents and homes in Myanmar. The big red eyes that Ismail was talking about will perhaps haunt him all his life. One may wonder if the eyes were actually red, or Ismail imagined them to be so out of his fearful state. He also remembers that the Rohingyas wanted to reach the Muslim country, a sense of belonging or kinship or affinity was sought in the Muslimness or religious affinity. Ismail’s assertion that the Buddhist Moghs were with the military attacked their village also speaks volumes of religion being played out in Myanmar politics, and it is penetrating into young minds.

One can only hope that the world will stop creating refugees and orphans, where the space of orphan-friendly-space will become their most cherished space and perhaps in the mental domain the most treasured memory to hold on. This is one of the cruellest fate that a child deserves. Let us strive to move beyond this politics of power and dream of a world where a child will have a home, a sweet home!

Authors Affiliations

References

[1] According to the latest study from UNICEF (done by the end of 2018) [retrieved from UNICEF’s April 2020’s report],  there exists a total number of 13 million child refugees, approximately one million asylum-seeking children and an estimated 17 million IDP children displaced within their own country by violence and conflict, United Nations Children’s Fund, Child displacement, April 2020, https://data.unicef.org/topic/child-migration-and-displacement/displacement/, accessed 19 October 2020.

[2]  A total of 36,673 orphaned children are now living in the 12 Rohingya camps under Ukhiya and Teknaf Upazilas of Cox’s Bazar, according to a government survey, Tarek Mahmud, “36,673 orphaned children living in Rohingya camps”, Dhaka Tribune, 9 November 2017, https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/nation/2017/11/09/36673-orphaned-children-living-rohingya-camps, accessed 19 October 2020.

[3] The Daily Star. Exodus greater than Rwanda genocide. https://www.thedailystar.net/backpage/news/exodus-greater-rwanda-genocide-1702837; accessed 31 October 2020.

[4] One out of two Rohingya children who fled to Bangladesh without their parents were orphaned by brutal violence. There are currently more than 6,000 unaccompanied and separated Rohingya children living in Cox’s Bazar. (As per August 2018 data), Save the Children, Alarming Number of Rohingya Children Orphaned by Brutal Violence – Save the Children Study, https://www.savethechildren.org/us/about-us/media-and-news/2018-press-releases/alarming-number-rohingya-children-orphaned-brutal-violence, accessed 19 October 2020.

Acknowledgement: This work was funded by the British Academy as part of the project, “Rohingya Journeys of Violence and Resilience in Bangladesh and its Neighbours: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives” (Award Reference: SDP2\100094), supported under the UK Government’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF). 

New paper published on tropical cyclones and warning systems: the extraordinary among the commonplace

Rebekah Yore30 April 2020

Many of you may know well what it means to live through recurring hazards, such as annual seasons of tropical cyclones. Some of you will know how to protect yourselves and your families against the frightening but smaller storms. Some will know the catastrophic danger and absolute fear created by the larger ones (all in relative terms of course). Some will know what it means to live in evacuation centres and to be displaced in emergency shelters for weeks or even months at a time.

Whatever your experiences, imagine for a moment that you’ve never experienced a Category 5 hurricane before, unaware of what it could do to your family, friends and home; a person living in a wooden home on stilts over the ocean and unsure of what “storm surge” means; a farmer whose life depends on the pigs he keeps on his land around his home; an elderly woman having experienced a deadly disaster years ago but who is now completely dependent on her family to ensure her safety. Does experience or naivety help you make safer decisions? What happens if you want to leave for a shelter but the rest of your family doesn’t? What do you do if you keep animals on your homeland and can’t leave them behind? Or what if you hear a message on the radio that conflicts with advice you hear on the TV?

Conversation partners in Tanauan, Leyte, Philippines 

In our latest paper published in Disasters journal, Joanna Faure Walker and I have drawn on our fieldwork studies in the Philippines and Dominica to investigate what warnings people heard, when and where from in relation to how they then reacted before major tropical cyclones. In the Philippines, we took Super Typhoon Yolanda in 2013 (internationally known as Haiyan) as a case study, and in Dominica, we studied Major Hurricane Maria in 2017. The Philippines and the Caribbean experience annual tropical cyclone seasons, and so are accustomed to events that usually range between tropical depressions and Category 1-2 storms. However, we are particularly interested in examining what happens on rarer occasions, when these locations experience large Category 4 and giant Category 5 storms.

We found that among the people we surveyed in the two locations, a warning that both Yolanda and Maria were approaching was heard by all but one person before both storms arrived. These were often received with more than a day’s notice, however, over three quarters of our populations chose to either remain at home throughout the storms, leave for shelter during them, or leave for shelter once they had passed, not complying with direct instructions from the authorities to evacuate. Not the intention of those issuing the warnings, and not the safety seeking behaviours we would associate with a successful warning system.

Conversation partners in Soufriere, Dominica

Single sources of warning, such as a message through a radio only, failed to reach everyone in both locations, and so warnings issued across several media platforms were often the best way of ensuring as far as possible that the most people received a warning advisory. This is intuitively sensible, especially as some may fail at critical stages. However, in the Philippines, this had practical implications. Even though only around half of respondents heard a warning from two or more sources, slightly more people evacuated before Yolanda arrived when they heard two sources, rather than only one.

So if the warning system technology works, why did the desired human response not follow? We know from other studies that evacuation is tricky because of the complexities of people’s lives, and that people stay at home to protect their possessions, their livestock, to adhere to social pressures etc. But revealed in our surveys were a number of key elements that also deprived our respondents of a full appreciation of the heightened danger in these two cases. These tropical cyclones were more deadly than the average storm, but not realising the implications of “storm surge” because the term was widely unknown among respondents in the Philippines, signalled a failure in the messaging that almost certainly resulted in a higher death toll. Similarly, radio network breakdown during Maria’s very late and rapid intensification near Dominica meant that warning messages were confusing and Category 5 impacts were not expected. In such situations, people defaulted to their usual behaviour: stay at home and ride it out, it’s what normally works. And because both information pictures were incomplete, people were caught unaware.

Tacloban, Leyte, Philippines (2016)

In both locations, messages were reported to have been inconsistent and unclear, for example to evacuate if you live close to the water or in “vulnerable housing” (what does this even mean?) in the Philippines. Often these required people to exercise considerable levels of subjective judgement over several risk profiles, most notably their own and that of their locale. This necessitates, at the very least, a full hazard information picture. Additionally, evacuation and shelter infrastructure that should support warning messages and promote safety seeking behaviour was often so substandard that it was a deterrent. The inadequacy of many emergency shelters discouraged people from their use, being overcrowded, lacking in resources, offering little personal safety, and incurred physical damage themselves by the storms.

Our paper demonstrates that within the social processes of warning mechanisms, a failure at any stage can render them decidedly less effective in saving lives. It shows that warning systems require the support of accurate forecasting and message dissemination technology (improved hazard modelling, the acknowledgement of scientific risk uncertainty, robust and consistent communications networks, and context appropriate language), solid infrastructure (e.g. fit-for-purpose evacuation shelters) and an inherent consideration for the idiosyncrasies of populations at risk, taking into account “foreground” and “background” constraints and assumptions (these are explained in the paper, so go read it). It also suggests that experiencing more regular, lower intensity tropical cyclones may in itself not help reduce vulnerability to the more deadly effects of rare, higher-intensity storms.

Our full study and findings in more detail can be found here:

Yore, R., Walker, J.F. (2020). Early Warning Systems and Evacuation: Rare and Extreme vs Frequent and Small-Scale Tropical Cyclones in the Philippines and Dominica. Disasters, doi:10.1111/disa.12434

 

 

 

Conflict, Disaster, and Disease: A Colossal Catastrophe Looms in the Rohingya Camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh

Bayes Ahmed20 April 2020

A panoramic view of the Kutupalong Rohingya camp in Cox’s Bazar district, Bangladesh. Source: Bayes Ahmed, fieldwork, 2019.

On 17 April 2020, another boat floating in the Bay of Bengal for two months was found carrying 30 dead bodies and 400 other Rohingya refugees, mostly women and children, fleeing armed conflict from Myanmar. Also, since 23 March 2020, the Myanmar military has been carrying out daily airstrikes and shelling in Rakhine State resulting in at least 32 civilian deaths, mostly women and children, and destroying homes and schools. The killing of innocent people and civilians by the Myanmar Army/Tatmadaw in Rakhine is still taking place fearlessly despite the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the principal judicial organ of the United Nations (UN), officially endorsed the ‘Rohingya identity’ in January 2020 and ordered the Myanmar government not to commit acts of genocide and take effective measures to prevent the destruction of any evidence related to genocide. The final verdict on the prevention and punishment of the Crime of (Rohingya) Genocide against Myanmar is pending.

The crisis is not new. The Rakhine State of Myanmar and Cox’s Bazar District of Bangladesh share international borders, and both countries were commonly ruled by the British Empire. Being the same colony for over 120 years, eventually, the Muslim Bengalis and Buddhist Rakhine people travelled between the two states (formerly known as the Arakan State) for business, agricultural and other purposes. However, since the independence of Burma in 1948, the Muslim population in Rakhine have been labelled as ‘illegal Bengali migrants’ and later on referred to as the Rohingyas. Failing to permanently expel the Rohingyas from Rakhine, the Burmese (Military) government, introduced a citizenship law in October 1982 stating that “full citizens are descendants of residents who lived in Burma prior to 1823 or were born to parents who were citizens at the time of birth”. The amended law has a clear link with the Muslim migration during the British rule in Burma between 1824-1948. Eventually, the Rohingyas lost their citizenship and became stateless.

Since then persistent torture, human rights violation and persecution followed by a number of major military crackdowns, a genocidal policy adopted by the Myanmar Army, communal violence between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine, and killing and murder of innocent civilians and burning down their homestead resulted in the forced displacement of Rohingyas to Bangladesh notably in 1978, 1992, 2012, 2016, 2017, and in 2019. Recently, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) estimated that at least 6,700 people lost their lives due to direct violence in Myanmar between 25 August and 24 September 2017. The UN estimates that over one million stateless Rohingya are still remaining in Rakhine State (600,000 displaced and 470,00 non-displaced). The actual number is unknown due to fabrication in Myanmar’s national population census and strategically replacing the names of local villages/townships. The Rohingyas are facing extreme discrimination and are being denied basic humanitarian access, livelihoods and services in Myanmar. In contrast, Bangladesh is currently hosting over 860,000 Rohingyas (78% of them are women and children) in the UN registered camps in Cox’s Bazar and over 300,00 of them are hiding as undocumented refugees. The crisis has adversely impacted more than 444,000 Bengali host community members in Cox’s Bazar.

An enormous protected area of hill forests in Cox’s Bazar district (6,000 hectares) has already been wiped out to build makeshift shelters by cutting hills and to arrange fuel for cooking for the Rohingyas. They are living in camps that are absolutely vulnerable to landslides, flash flooding, cyclones, and fire hazards. Between April to November 2019, at least 1400, 500, 70, and 35 major incidents were reported across all camps related to landslide/soil erosion, wind/storm, flood, and fire hazard respectively. As a result, over 85,000 individuals were affected and 4,000 households were displaced to another location. No effective early warning system is available for them, although the partners are consistently working to make the camps weather-proof and resilient to natural hazards.

Multi-hazard prone Rohingya makeshift camps in Cox’s Bazar district, Bangladesh. Source: Bayes Ahmed, fieldwork, 2018-2020 and Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG), 2019.

The Rohingyas in Cox’s Bazar are not allowed to move outside the camps and build permanent shelters. No formal education is also allowed. They depend on nominal humanitarian assistance from the UN such as basic food (rice, palm oil, and lentils). These embargos are imposed mostly to comply with the standard UN refugee mandates. The novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is posing another major threat to the Rohingyas, as they are living in exceedingly overcrowded camps and the existing health centres are not equipped with necessary testing and treatment facilities. The same situation applies to the host communities. As instructed by the UN, the partners are advancing with the construction of an isolation and treatment centres, reducing activities to essential services and assistances only, promoting hygiene activities, training healthcare workers, and ensuring social distancing inside the camps. As of 20 April 2020, the entire Cox’s Bazar district including the camps are now locked down, and no Rohingya is even allowed to move between two camps until further notice.

Activities are undertaken to prevent COVID-19 outbreak in the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar district, Bangladesh. Source: Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG), 2020.

The Rohingyas are also afraid to go back to Myanmar as they suspect fresh attacks on them by the Myanmar Army. The repatriation process is halted. The Rohingyas have strong community bonding and trying their best to adapt in this dreadful situation, however, all these efforts are not enough to ensure resilient futures for them. Given the international and national resolutions, the only sustainable solution for the Rohingya refugees would be to repatriate them in Myanmar with safety and dignity. 

Overall, the genocide-fled Rohingyas and already over-stressed Bangladeshi host communities in Cox’s Bazar are not ready to face the impending threats of natural hazard-induced disasters and Coronavirus pandemic. If, for example, a landslide/cyclone disaster and COVID-19 outbreak collide in the coming months, then it would be another catastrophic humanitarian crisis. The threat is inevitable, but nobody knows any decisive remedy to tackle it. Now, we can only pray for a strong cyclone or consecutive torrential rainfall events not to occur during the cyclone and monsoon season (May-November) or the Coronavirus not to spread in the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar. Yet, there is no hope for their sustainable repatriation, integration, third-country settlement, or justice. The situation is somewhat true or even worse for the remaining 70 million displaced people worldwide – their sufferings have no limits!

Even a pod of whales can travel from the Indian to the Atlantic Ocean, a flock of birds can fly from one continent to the other, but unfortunately, we have created such a sickening (in)human civilisation where a group of distressed people fleeing war, conflict, climate change and natural disasters are not allowed to move freely or even claim basic human rights for their minimal level of survival. This is the bitter truth! The only long-lasting solution to this grave crisis would be to fully support global truce (including the insurgents and militias), end hatred and discrimination towards minority and refugee population, and promote peace, sustainable economic growth, and global and regional cooperation gradually.

Rohingya camps in the no man’s land in Tumbru, Naikhongchari Upazila, Bandarban district, Bangladesh. Source: Bayes Ahmed, fieldwork, 2018.

Author: Dr Bayes Ahmed, UCL IRDR