Submission to International Development Committee
16th April 2020
Humanitarian crises monitoring: impact of coronavirus
About Burma Campaign UK
1) Burma Campaign UK works for human rights, democracy and development in Burma. We were founded in 1991.
No developing country has the capacity to address the impact of coronavirus, and Burma is no exception. Burma Campaign UK has particular concern for internally displaced people (IDPs) in Burma, and refugees from Burma in neighbouring countries. They have even less capacity for dealing with coronavirus, and are living in conditions which make the spread of the virus much harder to control.
3) In Bangladesh restrictions and obstacles by the government of Bangladesh make the delivery of humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya refugees at this critical time more difficult. The government has to date continued to implement a ban on internet access in the camps, depriving refugees access to life-saving information. International donors were not providing sufficient aid for meeting basic needs of refugees even before the coronavirus pandemic.
4) In Thailand almost 100,000 refugees, mainly ethnic Karen and Karenni, live in camps which have suffered from significant cuts in aid in the past 8 years. People there are already on the edge of survival and have no spare capacity to deal with the coronavirus. Urgent funding was already needed to ensure adequate access to food, shelter, healthcare and education even before the current crisis. New funding must be provided.
5) In Burma the government led by Aung San Suu Kyi has received international support to address the coronavirus pandemic but at the same time her government is restricting humanitarian access to IDPs displaced by conflict in several ethnic states. The Burmese government has also imposed a ban on internet access in parts of Rakhine State and Chin State, depriving around 1 million people access to lifesaving health information, and has reintroduced military dictatorship era censorship blocking some ethnic media websites. Not enough pressure has been applied on Aung San Suu Kyi’s government regarding these humanitarian aid restrictions and her censorship of access to information.
Regarding the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh:
6) A key issue is the continuing internet blackout in the camps, which is imposed by the Bangladeshi government. This is having a severe negative impact both in terms of local and international NGOs, and Rohingya community organisations in the camp, being able to organise, communicate and prepare for when COVID-19 hits the camps.
7) International humanitarian agencies operating in the camps in Bangladesh continue to face bureaucracy which obstructs their ability to work. This ranges from organisations only being permitted to do certain types of work, in a certain way, and only allowed into the camp for a set number of hours or not at all. Although many international agencies have withdrawn international staff, some remain and their ability to put measures in place ahead of the virus hitting the camps is being constrained.
8) A lot of the COVID-19 response in the camps will be carried out by local NGOs and the Rohingya community themselves. Local NGOs face fewer restrictions but still need more freedom and more resources to prepare now for how they can respond.
9) Rohingya community organisations in the camps also face a lot of restrictions on their activities and do not receive any significant resources and support to enable them to self-organise.
10) Bangladesh is a poor country which will be unable to meet the needs of its own population once COVID-19 spreads, let alone a million Rohingya refugees in squalid cramped camps. At present there are a total of 1,000 planned isolation beds for an official population of 850,000. These are isolation beds, not treatment beds. They do not have ventilators and other medical equipment.
11) Bangladesh should lift internet restrictions and allow all NGOs unrestricted access in and around the camps to prepare for the COVID-19 response. Bangladesh needs to understand that if it fails to act, the camps could become a hotspot for spreading the virus, so it is in their own best interests to do so.
Regarding refugees in Thailand:
12) In Thailand there remains almost 100,000 mainly ethnic Karen and Karenni refugees in camps on the border with Burma. These camps have suffered from significant reductions in international aid in recent years, pushing people right to the edge.
13) Health services have been reduced (the nearby award-winning Mae Tao Clinic, which the IDC asked DFID to support 13 years ago, has seen a 30 percent cut in funding) and people are struggling for basic food, and material for shelter. There needs to be immediate boosts to funding for the camps to ensure increased rations and medical supplies. The communities can scale up support themselves given resources to do so.
14) In addition, just across the border in Burma is Eh Tu Hta IDP camp, which had all its aid cut three years ago. 2,300 people live there. There is no healthcare provision any more, children have not been vaccinated in years. Urgent grants need to be given for food and medical supplies for this camp.
Regarding Internally Displaced People in Burma:
15) In Rakhine State, Shan State and Kachin State there are hundreds of thousands of IDPs in camps or host communities due to attacks against the ethnic Rohingya, or due to increased conflict in Burma since the internationally supported so-called peace process began.
16) Humanitarian aid to these IDPs already faces two main challenges. Restrictions on the delivery of humanitarian assistance put in place by both Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government, and in certain places also by the military. They also suffer from a lack of sufficient support from international donors, including DFID.
17) Most IDPs live in cramped often squalid camps without access to a healthy diet, or proper sanitation and adequate healthcare.
18) IDPs are among the most vulnerable people in Burma to coronavirus, but rather than receiving targeted support, the Burmese government has kept restrictions in place in most places, and is selectively only allowing specific agencies limited access for certain periods, mainly just for food aid. International agencies do not have the freedom to operate. They need to scale up and put in place equipment to provide care for these IDPs when the virus reached IDP camps. Many agencies are afraid to speak out about restrictions for fear of repercussions from Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, which is highly intolerant of criticism.
19) In addition to Burmese government restrictions on humanitarian assistance, the government is also restricting access to vital and potentially life-saving information about the coronavirus.
20) In Rakhine State one million people, ethnic Rohingya, ethnic Rakhine, and others, are impacted by a government-imposed internet blackout, put in place in response to conflict between the Burmese military and the Arakan Army in an attempt to stop information about human rights violations reaching the world. This also endangers lives as it limits crucial access to information about the virus. This internet ban must be lifted. The British government was part of joint statement from several countries calling for an end to the internet ban, but no stronger action has been taken beyond words.
21) Earlier this year Aung San Suu Kyi also reintroduced censorship of ethnic websites. Banning access to several websites which are widely read by ethnic populations. This kind of censorship has not been seen in Burma in almost ten years. These websites, as well as reporting on human rights violations, can play an important role in ensuring life-saving information about the coronavirus reaches ethnic populations.
22) It is of significant concern that Aung San Suu Kyi’s government has paid no significant price beyond criticism for its restrictions on humanitarian assistance to IDPs in Burma, who are all from ethnic minorities. These restrictions are already killing people.
23) Aung San Suu Kyi's government is receiving direct and indirect support from international donors, including British aid. At the same time it is stopping those donors from assisting some of the most vulnerable people in the country. This is a situation that cannot be allowed to continue.
24) Germany has announced the suspension of development assistance is response to Aung San Suu Kyi’s policies against the ethnic Rohingya. No other government has taken practical action.
25) Even where there is access, donors, including DFID, are not prioritising victims of conflict in Burma. DFID has not updated its country website page on Burma for almost two years, but the last update dated July 2018 showed DFID spending three times as much on economic development and governance as on humanitarian aid.