Human Rights Watch is an independent, international human rights organization that monitors, reports, and conducts advocacy on human rights in more than 90 countries globally. Human Rights Watch welcomes the opportunity to provide input to the United Nations Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons, Dr. Claudia Mahler, ahead of her official visit to Bangladesh from 7 to 17 November 2022. This submission highlights areas of concern that Human Rights Watch hopes will inform Dr. Mahler’s considerations while she is in Bangladesh.
The Bangladesh government has drafted laws and policies to promote the rights of older people. However, authorities have failed to fully implement many of these directives. In 2013 the government created the National Policy on Older Persons. However, nearly a decade since its creation, there is no legal framework for its implementation, despite a law drafted in 2015. The ruling Awami League has not yet followed through on its election commitment made in 2018 to ensure access to free healthcare for people over the age of 65.
Bangladesh’s pension program currently only applies to government employees—a small portion of the population. Notably, the government committed to implementing a universal pension scheme this year. However, concerns regarding funding and delays leave its implementation uncertain. Bangladesh’s Old Age Allowance system provides for 500 taka (just under US$5) per month for just 5.7 million of the over 15 million Bangladeshis over the age of 65.
While there is a broad range of issues Dr. Mahler will address, this submission reflects our existing research and thus focuses primarily on impact of climate-related disasters and conditions for older Rohingya refugees.
Impact of climate-related disasters
In September 2022, Human Rights Watch conducted interviews with older people and their families in Sylhet following the flash floods in May and June 2022 that displaced almost 9 million people and killed hundreds. While there is currently no conclusive evidence concerning the 2022 floods and the climate crisis, Bangladesh is one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change. The world’s leading scientific body on climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), predicts that the region will likely see more frequent and severe extreme weather events in the future.
Older people described a lack of warning systems, protection, and assistance. After the floods, they described how they struggled to access toilets and to obtain food, water, and medicines.
Mohammad Abdul Gani, 75, said there was no warning that floods were coming and he and his family ended up stuck on the top of the tin roof of their house for three days before they were rescued by the military and brought to a nearby school that authorities were using to shelter approximately 250 people. Overcrowding and access to sanitation facilities was an issue in all shelters where people interviewed by Human Rights Watch were staying.
Older people had to often rely on family members to reach safety and to access basic services, including food, water, sanitation and humanitarian aid, which in turn impacts their mental health where they often feel like a burden. “We, the older people, are always a burden for a family. During the flood you cannot imagine how unbearable the situation was,” said Gani. He said that because of his cataracts, he had difficulty seeing to move about and relied on his son: “My son helped me, but not all the time because he also looked after other things like getting relief aid and food.”
Abdul Kadir, 67, said he also had to rely on his son to access food and water. “During the flood it was like we were in hell. Only my son went swimming or walking in the water to collect aid when he heard of anything. We had to collect drinking water from far away where there is a tube well. My son used to go and collect.”
Sultana Begum, 45, described trying to access aid for her 65-year-old mother, Nurunnesa: “My mother suffered a lot. She is an old lady. We could not provide her any food.” Begum said that she would try to collect food aid but it was inconsistent and limited. She said, “Three times we heard that there was government relief being distributed so we rushed to that place and tried to get some food. Two times I received, another time I returned empty-handed. Children, older people were crying for food. We thought we would die.”
Habibur Rahman said that his mother, Shabjan Bibi, 80, died after being stranded in their home, unable to access the medication she needed for her heart disease and diabetes.
When the water receded after 10 days, Rahman was able to take a boat to collect medications for his mother, but he said it was too late and she died two days later.
Questions for the Bangladesh government:
- How are older people being consulted and included in disaster early warning and relief and recovery systems? How are they being considered in climate change adaptation planning?
- What is the government’s disaster early warning system and how do authorities ensure that early warnings are communicated to older people?
- Did the government issue advanced and accessible warnings ahead of the May and June flooding and if yes, can they describe the process?
- How does the government’s disaster evacuation plan take into consideration the rights and needs of older people?
- Does the government’s disaster relief plan include considerations in particular for older people? How does the government plan to ensure older people are able to access food, water, medicine, and other essential aid during disaster relief efforts? Will the government guarantee these as basic human rights to all older persons, especially during disasters?
Older Rohingya Refugees
Human Rights Watch has been documenting and reporting on the Rohingya refugee situation since 1992 when refugees first fled over the border from Rakhine state in Myanmar.
Older people interviewed by Human Rights Watch described relying on unpredictable humanitarian aid to access food and other necessities. Those with difficulty walking described needing to rely on others to access toilets or to flee in case of emergency. Kahimullah, age 70 and partially blind with respiratory problems and difficulty walking, was not receiving any specialized services or assistance when Human Rights Watch spoke to him in 2018. He and his wife were living on a steep incline in a tiny hut next to a fecal sludge pond. Kahimullah said: “I feel danger where I live, but I have no other options. If strong winds and rain come, maybe someone will come to help us…Because I am blind, I can’t go outside. I can’t get food rations, I have no money for fish or meat. I am dependent on humanitarian relief.” Arefa, a 60-year-old woman with hypertension who Human Rights Watch visited as she was lying on the floor of her hut with an IV bottle dripping into her arm, said, “I need help to move. There is no latrine or toilet nearby. I am not able to walk by myself. I need someone to help me to walk.”
In recent years, the government has increased barriers to mobility to and from the camps by erecting barbed wire around the camps. For example, barbed wire fencing trapped thousands of refugees while a massive fire spread through Rohingya refugee camps on March 22, 2022, killing dozens of people and injuring hundreds. During the recent fires, the fencing in particular limited the ability of older people, children, and people with disabilities to flee. “People were frantically trying to escape the fire by climbing over or cutting through the barbed wire fence,” one refugee said. “I saw some of them were injured by the barbed wire. Especially the children and older people were the most affected. With so many people trying to escape, it was often children and older people who got trapped.”
Questions for the Bangladesh government:
- How is the government consulting with older people in the Rohingya refugee camps in the provision of services, relocation, repatriation, relief, and development?
- How is the government ensuring older people have equal access to food and non-food distributions, adequate medical care, including mental health care, counseling and psychosocial support?
- How is the government ensuring alternative means of distribution and delivery of food for older people?
- In assigning shelters for older people are the authorities taking into consideration their access to toilets and other services?