(New York, May 30, 2008) – The Burmese government should immediately halt forcibly evicting people displaced by Cyclone Nargis from their temporary shelters, Human Rights Watch said today. The Burmese government should abide by its pledge to the United Nations and allow full humanitarian access to all cyclone victims.
Human Rights Watch has received credible reports that Burmese authorities have expelled hundreds, if not thousands, of displaced persons from schools, monasteries, and public buildings, and urged them to return to their destroyed villages in the Irrawaddy Delta. The authorities emptied some public buildings and schools to serve as polling stations for the May 24 referendum on a new constitution, despite pleas from United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to postpone the referendum and focus all resources on humanitarian relief. Since then, the military government has undertaken a large-scale campaign to evict displaced persons from dozens of government-operated tented relief camps in the vicinity of Rangoon, ordering the residents to return to their home areas, regardless of the conditions there.
Many in the camps fled areas that were completely devastated by the cyclone, which in some areas destroyed 95 percent of homes and other structures, according to humanitarian agencies. Many affected regions of the Irrawaddy Delta remain virtually uninhabitable, lacking shelter, clean water and food, posing a serious health hazard. Continuing unnecessary restrictions on humanitarian access have greatly exacerbated the problems.
The forced evictions are part of government efforts to demonstrate that the emergency relief period is over and that the affected population is capable of rebuilding their lives without foreign assistance. A government official at one camp where people had been forced to leave told Reuters, “It is better that they move to their homes where they are more stable … here, they are relying on donations and it is not stable.” An editorial in the Burmese-language Kyemon newpaper said that people in the delta could survive on “fresh vegetables that grow wild in the fields and on protein-rich fish from the river” if they could not get “bars of chocolate donated by the international community.”
“This not a question of choosing ‘wild vegetables’ over chocolate bars – the junta should not be telling victims to forage for food and mocking the efforts of aid agencies when Burma’s displaced people are still in desperate need and at grave risk,” said Adams. “Without shelter, food, and clean water, the government’s suggestion amounts to sending people to their deaths and is courting a greater disaster.”
People forced from their homes by Cyclone Nargis are considered to be internally displaced persons under international law. Under the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, the Burmese government should ensure the right of “internally displaced persons to return voluntarily, in safety and with dignity, to their homes or places of habitual residence, or to resettle voluntarily in another part of the country.”
In conducting voluntary returns, the authorities should make “[s]pecial efforts … to ensure the full participation of internally displaced persons in the planning and management of their return or resettlement and reintegration.” The guiding principles also provide that the Burmese authorities should “grant and facilitate for international humanitarian organizations and other appropriate actors, in the exercise of their respective mandates, rapid and unimpeded access to internally displaced persons to assist in their return or resettlement and reintegration.”
“International law says that disaster victims cannot be forced back to unsafe areas,” said Adams. “International pressure is needed to avoid adding yet another violation to the Burmese government’s long list.”