Ending the waiting game: Strategies for responding to internally displaced people in Burma

from Refugees International
Published on 01 Jun 2006
Executive Summary
Burma is experiencing one of the most neglected humanitarian and human rights crises in the world. no less than half a million people are internally displaced in the eastern part of the country and at least one million more have fled to neighboring nations. this report provides an in-depth look at the causes of displacement in Burma, the acute needs of the internally displaced population and the current response to those needs. Because the government of Burma is not fulfilling its responsibility to protect and support its own people, particularly ethnic minorities, the report recommends that the united States and the international aid community channel more funds into Burma. The Burmese people cannot wait for a civilian government before receiving humanitarian assistance from the outside world. international aid is already attempting to respond to a number of crises in Burma threatening millions of people. if these crises are not addressed immediately, their long-term impact will affect many generations to come, not only in Burma, but in the surrounding region. The international community should provide aid to Burma for four key reasons:

1. Aid is needed to respond to humanitarian crises and control their spread in the region.

2. Aid is required to build the capacity of community-based organizations and other non-governmental organizations that can access areas that are off-limits to international organizations.

3. Aid can lay the foundations of democracy and contribute to a "bottom-up" social and political transition.

4. Aid can help create a national identity and be used for conflict-resolution and peace-building initiatives.

More than five decades of conflict between the Burman controlled state and ethnic non-Burman nationalities has forced millions from their homes. although many ethnic groups originally fought for independence, today almost all accept the union of Burma and merely seek increased local authority and equality within a new federal structure. The Burmese military government, the State peace and development council, still suspects these groups of scheming to split the country and uses this as a justification for its brutal policies, including executions, torture, disappearances, forced conscription of children in the armed forces, rape, demolition of places of worship, and forced labor. To a lesser extent, human rights violations are also carried out by ethnic insurgent groups fighting the government.

Hundreds of thousands of people continue to be displaced in areas where armed conflict has ended. Human rights abuses by the military, large-scale development and infrastructure projects, and schemes to resettle the urban poor have all driven people from their homes. the most widespread form of displacement in Burma is migration by people seeking a secure livelihood, but they are generally not considered internally displaced under UN guidelines.

Displaced people in Burma live in ceasefire areas administered by ethnic nationalities, government-run relocation sites, and conflict and war-affected areas. conditions are poor for most internally displaced people, but those in conflict and war-affected zones are especially vulnerable. in terms of health care delivery, the World Health organization has ranked Burma 190th out of 191 countries. Basic medical supplies are difficult to obtain in the country and there is a lack of information about diseases such as HIV/AIDS, even though Burma has one of the most serious epidemics in asia. Surveys show that some in the displaced population have never even heard of HIV/AIDS.

It is further estimated that one in six children under the age of five is acutely malnourished among internally displaced and war-affected people. access to education is similarly low in conflict and war-affected areas, there are often no resources for teacher salaries and educational materials. When fighting breaks out the schools may be destroyed and education disrupted..

The government of Burma does not recognize the existence of internally displaced people in its borders and has no programs to assist them. most displacement in Burma is the result of government policy and military action and officials regularly prevent organizations from accessing and responding to the needs of the Burmese people. an international response to displacement is all the more necessary for humanitarian reasons and to help protect the people. the presence of international or local organization personnel helps reduce the government's human rights violations because the regime does not want witnesses to acts of violence.

Humanitarian aid to internally displaced people is provided by Burma-based international agencies, community-based organizations, and Thailand-based agencies. access to the neediest populations is extremely restricted and international organizations lack the capacity to identify most populations of internally displaced persons. people in the conflict and war-affected areas of eastern Burma are off limits to international agencies with the exception of the international committee of the red cross, which has limited access. Within the UN system, the office of the UN High commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) is the only agency to have received permission from the government to become involved with internally displaced people.

A 2003 survey revealed that up to 214,000 community-based organizations and 270 local non-governmental organizations operate in Burma. Because local groups can access many more locations than international organizations, partnerships between international agencies and local networks offer a promising means to meet the needs of internally displaced people. Some Thailand-based groups also provide cross-border assistance including food provision; medical care for communicable diseases, obstetric emergencies and other problems; water and sanitation awareness programs; and teacher training. However, limited capacity and resources hinder their operations.

After the Burmese military brutally suppressed the democracy movement in 1988, most countries cut off bilateral aid to Burma with the rationale that aid would have little positive impact and would reinforce the military regime. Humanitarian assistance has been reduced dramatically since that time, while disease, poverty, malnutrition and human rights abuses have increased. the Burmese government has consistently resisted international efforts, which have been fragmented and incoherent, to convince it to change its policies and end internal oppression.

The debate over aid rages on and even those who support aid to Burma are concerned that the assistance will be misdirected by the regime for its own use. as in any other country, there is the possibility that aid will allow the government to divert resources to other purposes, but most assistance is provided in areas where the government is ignoring the needs of the people. disagreement also prevails over sanctions against the regime. Some believe such policies cause the people to suffer while the junta survives through the support of Asian neighbors. others argue that sanctions provide moral support to pro-democracy forces and will weaken the regime in the long run.


(See full list of recommendations on pp. 38 - 40)

Donor governments should fund humanitarian agencies based in Burma now. the US in particular should expand funding for humanitarian initiatives and allocate more resources for displaced people in Burma.

A number of additional steps must be taken by the government of Burma, the international aid community, the united nations, international agencies based in Burma and Thailand, the united States and other nations to assist internally displaced people in Burma. first and foremost, the government of Burma must respect the human rights of its people and allow agencies to support and assist displaced people in its borders. this is unlikely to happen any time soon, and the overall goal of donor governments and international organizations therefore should be to convince the Burmese government to allow access to the entire population in all parts of the country.

International organizations have been able to expand gradually their involvement in sensitive subjects such as HIV/AIDS, so there is reason to expect that dialogue can make a difference. the united nations as a whole must develop a common strategy to respond to the humanitarian and human rights crises in Burma. the Security council should put Burma on its agenda and explore possibilities for a lasting political solution in the country. top UN officials must make Burma a priority and attempt to urge the Burmese regime to recognize internal displacement and follow its responsibilities under international human rights and humanitarian law.

Collective action is needed by the UN country team, and UNHCR and the UN children's fund (UNICEF) especially need to play a greater role with internally displaced people. Both UNHCR and UNICEF have an opportunity to urge the government to grant them access to the displaced because of programs they have already been given permission to run.

Until greater access is achieved, the united nations and other international agencies should channel funds through community-based organizations and train local networks on collecting data on human rights violations and other vulnerabilities. this data should be shared with advocacy organizations and agencies within Burma that are able to investigate cases of abuse. the emergence of civil society networks and community-based organizations in Burma should be encouraged, especially among minority and under-represented groups. donors should also develop strategies to protect displaced people in war-affected zones from further violence and abuse and help build the capacity of Thailand-based agencies, which are virtually the only groups providing aid to displaced people in these areas.

While the situation in Burma presents major challenges for the world at large, it can no longer be ignored. Humanitarian needs in Burma have reached a stage where they must be addressed immediately and international organizations in the country with the expertise to respond to these crises must be given permission by the government of Burma to carry out their activities. more international organizations should consider working in Burma and the international community must support their initiatives. the displaced people inside Burma deserve no less.

(pdf* format - 1.4 MB)