Suffering in Shadows: Aid Restrictions and Reductions Endanger Displaced Persons in Northern Myanmar

The suffering of civilians and forced displacement of ethnic minorities by the Myanmar military goes beyond the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in the west of the country. In northern Myanmar, nearly 100,000 people continue to live in displacement camps in Kachin and northern Shan States. Most were first displaced by fighting between the Myanmar military and the Kachin Independence Army in 2011, and many have been displaced multiple times, including in recent months. Approaching seven years of displacement, and despite ongoing and often increasing needs, displaced persons in northern Myanmar face decreasing aid and protection services. Over the past two years, the Government of Myanmar has dramatically increased restrictions on delivery of aid to this displaced population at the same time that the overall amount of aid provided by international donors has decreased. Nearly half of this displaced population lives in areas controlled by ethnic armed groups, areas where the government now forbids any international aid delivery and denies virtually all access for the United Nations and international humanitarian groups. Even for the displaced persons living in camps in government-controlled areas, access to aid and services has dramatically decreased as the government levies increasingly onerous bureaucratic requirements, limiting access to international and local humanitarians alike. These restrictions heighten the risks of abuse, exploitation, and human trafficking, creating a serious protection crisis. Despite attempts at peace talks, fighting and serious human rights abuses, including arbitrary arrests, torture, summary executions, and sexual violence, continue across the region. As recently as January 2017, Myanmar military shells fell near displacement camps, causing thousands to flee anew.

A combination of international aid and a robust local Kachin civil society has helped to ensure decent, if not ideal, conditions for those displaced in northern Myanmar. But the combination of reductions in such international aid, waning attention, and, most significantly, dramatically increased restrictions on assistance by the Myanmar government is creating a desperate and unsustainable situation for displaced persons in Kachin and northern Shan States. And while international pressure and attention on the plight of the Rohingya in the west of Myanmar must be sustained, the situation of forcibly displaced Kachin and other ethnic groups must not be forgotten.

There are immediate steps that the Government of Myanmar and the international community can take to alleviate the suffering of displaced persons in Kachin and northern Shan States, including restoration of “crossline” aid to non-government controlled areas, timely granting of travel authorizations for humanitarian staff, and maintaining, if not augmenting, international aid. For durable solutions to be created in the intermediate to long term, peace talks will need to advance. In addition, pilot programs for safe and voluntary returns of displaced persons to their villages of origin must begin when conditions permit.

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