(Bangkok) - Burma’s government should take immediate action to evacuate to higher ground tens of thousands of Muslims displaced last year by ethnic cleansing in Arakan State in advance of a tropical cyclone in the Bay of Bengal, Human Rights Watch said today.
Half of the approximately 140,000 ethnic Rohingya and Kaman Muslims displaced by violence and persecution that began in June 2012 are currently living in flood-prone paddy fields and coastal areas that may be hit by storm surges associated with Cyclone Mahasen, which will approach the coast of western Burma and Bangladesh late on May 15, 2013.
While storm surges could affect many low-lying areas in coastal Bangladesh and western Burma, displaced people unable to leave camps could be at particular risk.
“The Burmese government didn’t heed the repeated warnings by governments and humanitarian aid groups to relocate displaced Muslims ahead of Burma’s rainy season,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “If the government fails to evacuate those at risk, any disaster that results will not be natural, but man-made.”
Burma’s government undertook limited evacuations for some of the displaced on May 13 and 14, as well as for the general population throughout Arakan State, but numerous camps for the displaced remain occupied with no apparent plans for people to be moved or official warnings about the impending cyclone. Humanitarian organizations fear that Muslim families who attempt to flee on their own may be subject to violence from ethnic Arakanese Buddhist residents and local security forces.
Arakan State government spokesman Win Myaing told The Irrawaddy magazine that “All camps located near the coast are being resettled,” but humanitarian aid workers and Rohingya displaced persons told Human Rights Watch that coastal camps with tens of thousands of displaced persons had not been evacuated as of May 14, and that in some cases Rohingya were for unknown reasons being moved closer to the sea.
Burmese authorities should focus on moving the remaining displaced people in low-level areas to higher ground, work with humanitarian agencies to provide adequate shelter for all in need without discrimination, and ensure that Muslims and other vulnerable groups are secure from attacks or other violence before and after the cyclone, Human Rights Watch said.
According to the United Nations, more than 140,000 displaced in Arakan State are confined to squalid camps, many of which have inadequate shelter, food, water and sanitation, medical care, and other basic services. At least 69,000 live in shelter insufficient to withstand the rainy season – much less typhoon strength winds – and are located in low-lying areas at severe risk of flooding and storm surges.
Authorities continue to place severe restrictions on the movement of camp residents, preventing them from leaving camps that may be in harm’s way when the cyclone hits, Human Rights Watch said.
“Vulnerable Muslim populations are at risk not only from the cyclone, but from violence at the hands of ethnic Arakanese communities and the very local security forces who were responsible for their displacement in the first place,” Adams said.
Among the displaced population are tens of thousands of “unregistered” Rohingya who have not been formally recorded by the Burmese authorities, even though they live in areas where the security forces deny them freedom of movement and their presence is known to the aid community.
Human Rights Watch’s April report “All You Can Do is Pray” found that Burmese authorities and members of Arakanese groups committed crimes against humanity in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya and Kaman Muslims in Arakan State since June 2012.
Unregistered Rohingya have repeatedly told Human Rights Watch and humanitarian aid groups that they lack food, shelter, medicine, potable water, clothing, and other necessities. The government has not authorized humanitarian aid for unregistered displaced persons, and it appears that they are not being considered in the government’s slow-moving plans to relocate people out of danger from the cyclone.
The UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement sets out the responsibility of national authorities to provide protection and humanitarian assistance to all internally displaced people on their territory. In particular, there should be no discrimination in provision of assistance. Displaced persons have “the right to liberty of movement [and] to move freely in and out of camps or other settlements.” They also have [t]he right to seek safety in another part of the country.”
Human Rights Watch called on international donors to continue to press Burma’s government to ensure the safety of vulnerable displaced populations, including by evacuating them to safer areas and providing adequate shelter, and permitting full and unfettered access by humanitarian aid organizations.
“Since the violence in Arakan State, local security forces have continued to demonstrate significant hostility toward Muslim communities,” Adams said. “But the national government ultimately bears responsibility for what happens, and should act accordingly.”