No Safety, No Return – Involuntary and Non-Consultative Closure of IDP Camps a Violation of the Principles of International Law
In June 2018 when the Myanmar government announced its decision to close down the internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in Karen, Kachin, Shan and Rakhine States, over 100 CSOs expressed grave concerns regarding the government’s strategy, calling the move premature and shortsighted. Despite these calls, the Myanmar government continues to forge on, holding yet another workshop on the “National Strategy on Closure of IDP Camps” without the participation of IDPs and affected communities.
The strategy developed by the Union Minister for Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement is misguided at best and at worst, whitewashes the ongoing genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes that ethnic communities continue to endure. The workshop was held just a month after the Chair of the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission stated that an ongoing genocide is taking place in Myanmar and that the estimated hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who remain in Myanmar “continue to suffer the most severe” restrictions and repressions. Most recently, a plan to repatriate over 2,000 Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar was postponed due to ongoing safety and security concerns on the ground.
To add to the mounting evidence that conditions on the ground is far from possible closure of IDP camps, a human rights law group, Public International Law and Policy Group (PILPG), who conducted the report on Rakhine State for the U.S. State Department has stated that there are reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity and genocide had been committed against the Rohingya. Yet rather than focusing on holding perpetrators of these grave crimes accountable and ensuring the safe, dignified and sustainable return of IDPs, the government’s strategy continues to turn a blind eye to the root causes of displacement – namely an unaccountable military that continues to act with impunity and is emboldened to promote the majority Bamar-Buddhist supremacy fostered through decades of military control and power.
Just as the Rohingya refugees were left out of the now halted process of repatriation from Bangladesh, the recent strategy lacks consultation with IDPs in matters that will deeply affect their lives. Since January 2018, at least 28,000 civilians have been displaced due to armed conflict in Kachin and Shan States as intensity and frequency of the use of heavy weapons, aerial bombardment and artillery continued to escalate. As the Myanmar military continues to act with total disregard for international humanitarian law, one IDP from Kachin State echoed his community’s desires in an interview stating, “We do not want to go home: we are scared it is not safe. You need to find a solution to the conflict before forcing people to return.” As is the case in Rakhine State, safety and security on the ground are far from conducive to any return or closure of IDP camps in Kachin and Shan States.
Moreover, the government strategy does not address the restitution of the lost land and property of IDPs, including issues surrounding secondary occupation, contested claims to land and land titles, laws and policy that prioritize large-scale agribusiness and other private investors and the recognition of customary land law – which is one of the most common legal systems governing land in displaced people’s places of origin. The government has also recently further entrenched laws favoring private investors by adopting the 2018 Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land Management Law, much to the dismay of over 340 Myanmar CSOs. The law especially threatens the security of IDPs, as the use of land which has not been registered can lead to imprisonment of up to two years. As the statement released by Kachin and Shan IDPs elucidates, “The lands that IDPs have left behind is not vacant, fallow or virgin land. Before the fighting happened in 2011, our ancestors were the original occupant and had worked on those lands using our own customary practices.” Sadly, IDPs’ original land that they owned prior to displacement could already be taken over by the government, and under this newly adopted law they may not be able to reclaim their land for restitution.
Allowing the closure of IDP camps to take place is to allow the government to bury their heads in the sand and sow seeds of yet more conflict and displacement. What is impeding development in ethnic areas is not the existence of IDP camps, but the ongoing war that is being waged against ethnic communities as well as the centralization of resource and power by those who continue to grip onto the status quo at the expense of the marginalization and persecution of ethnic communities. Thus, the voices and concerns of the displaced ethnic communities must be at the center of a strategy that will deeply impact their life and future. Rather than covering up the humanitarian crisis by closing down IDP camps, the Myanmar government should ensure that humanitarian aid workers have rapid and unimpeded access to all IDP camps including those under EAO controlled areas and ensure that local ethnic humanitarian organizations can operate without threats, intimidation and legal consequences. For far too long, the government has been willfully impeding relief supplies by restricting the movement of humanitarian aid and aid workers in violation of the Geneva Convention and international humanitarian law.
What is more, those who continue to commit atrocity crimes must be held accountable. Under the current conditions, it is clear that the strategy will only serve to force the most vulnerable communities in Myanmar to leave their makeshift camps to return to the killing fields. Any measures that may end in the forceful removal of IDPs constitute a violation of international humanitarian law prohibiting the forcible transfer of civilians and will also result in the violation of the principle of non-refoulement. The international community must pressure the Myanmar government to immediately halt the process of closing down IDP camps and consult the IDPs and affected ethnic communities.
Resources from the past week
Statements and Press Releases
By Burma Human Rights Network
By Human Rights Foundation of Monland
By Internally Displaced Persons from Kachin and Shan States
By EarthRights International
By EarthRights International
Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”