Tens of thousands of older women and men from ethnic minorities across Myanmar who faced military atrocities and were forced to flee their homes are being let down by a humanitarian system that often fails to adequately address their rights and needs, Amnesty International said in a report published today.
“Fleeing my whole life”: Older people’s experience of conflict and displacement in Myanmar is the organization’s first comprehensive investigation into the specific ways older people’s rights and dignity are not respected amid armed conflict and crisis, as well in the provision of humanitarian assistance.
“For decades, Myanmar’s ethnic minorities have suffered recurrent abuse at the hands of the military. Many older people racked by atrocities amid recent military operations lived through similar crimes as children or younger adults. Their experience lays bare the military’s longstanding brutality, and the need for justice,” said Matthew Wells, Senior Crisis Advisor at Amnesty International.
“Tens of thousands of older women and men are among the more than one million people displaced to camps as a result of conflict and military abuse. The humanitarian community has responded admirably to crisis after crisis, saving many lives. But older people are slipping through the cracks, their specific needs often overlooked. The humanitarian response must become more inclusive.”
The report is based on 146 interviews with older women and men from the Kachin, Lisu, Rakhine, Rohingya, Shan, and Ta’ang ethnic minorities. They were conducted during three missions to Myanmar’s Rakhine, Kachin and northern Shan States, as well as to the refugee camps in southern Bangladesh, between December 2018 and April 2019. Those interviewed range from 54 to more than 90 years old.
Military crimes against older people
As the Myanmar military has committed atrocity crimes during operations in Kachin, Rakhine, and Shan States, older people confront particular risks. Some older people stay behind as villages empty at word of a military advance, often due to their strong ties to home and land or to being physically unable to flee. After finding them, soldiers arbitrarily detain, torture, and at times kill older women and men.
A 67-year-old ethnic Rakhine farmer who stayed behind when most of his village fled in March 2019, in part because a severe hearing impairment meant he had not heard fighting nearby between the military and Arakan Army (AA), described what Myanmar soldiers did after forcing him out of his home: “When I got to where the captain was, the soldiers tied my hands… behind my back, with the rope that’s used for cattle. They asked me, ‘Did the AA come to the village?’ I said no, I’d never seen [the AA]… and then the soldiers beat me.”
During the military’s attack on the Rohingya in 2017, many older women and men were burned alive in their homes. Mariam Khatun, an ethnic Rohingya woman around 50 years old, fled to the nearby forest with her three children when Myanmar soldiers entered her village in Maungdaw Township. “My parents were left behind in the home,” she said. “I had two young children, how could I take them as well? … My parents were physically unable to move.”
As she and her children reached the river next to the village, Mariam Khatun looked back and saw the village burning, knowing her parents were still inside their home.
Amnesty International’s review of lists of people killed from different Rohingya villages indicates older people often suffered disproportionately. A quantitative study by Médecins Sans Frontières found similarly, showing that in the month after the military began its brutal operations on 25 August 2017, the highest rates of mortality – by far – were among Rohingya women and men age 50 and older.
For older people in Rakhine and Kachin States who have fled, the journey through Myanmar’s mountainous borderlands was often difficult, worsened by the military blocking main routes and restricting humanitarian access. Amnesty International documented several cases of older people dying as they tried to flee to safety, unable to access health care.
Humanitarian assistance falls short
UN agencies and humanitarian organizations have responded to enormous needs in Bangladesh, where more than 900,000 Rohingya live in camps, and in Myanmar, where more than 250,000 people are displaced. Insufficient donor funding and government restrictions in both countries – particularly severe in Myanmar – create further challenges. But, even amid the constraints, the humanitarian system has too often neglected older people.
In the Bangladesh refugee camps, many older Rohingya women and men are unable to regularly access the most basic of services, including sanitation, health care, water, and food. The camps’ congestion and hilly terrain make for a difficult environment, particularly for older people with limited mobility.
Many older Rohingya report being unable to access latrines and having to use a pan in their shelters – a major loss of dignity. Mawlawi Harun, an ethnic Rohingya man in his 90s, said, while sitting in his shelter in Camp #15 in Bangladesh: “I go to the latrine here, I eat and sleep here. I have become like a cow or goat. What more can I say? Cows defecate and urinate in the same place where they eat… Now I’m sleeping in a latrine.”
Older women and men also struggle to access health facilities, due to the distance and terrain. Even when they can, they find some clinics cannot treat even common chronic diseases – such as high blood pressure and chronic respiratory illness – that disproportionately affect older people. Many older people are forced to buy medication from market stalls that should be part of the health response.
Gul Bahar, around 80 years old, said she spends 5,000 taka (US$59) per month on medication, including pills for high blood pressure, as the camp clinic near her generally provides only paracetamol. To pay for her medications, she said, “We sell part of our food ration and cooking oil. We also sold our blankets.”
In northern Myanmar, where many ethnic Kachin have been displaced since 2011, some humanitarian programs, particularly for livelihood support, under-include older people. Older people also face discrimination in accessing work, which has a cascade of negative effects, compounded by the decrease in humanitarian assistance in recent years, due to donor fatigue and an expectation that people in the IDP camps can access work in surrounding areas.
“I’ve approached the employers and said I want to work,” said Zatan Hkawng Nyoi, a 67-year-old ethnic Kachin woman who spent a lifetime farming before being displaced to an IDP camp. “They said I’m too old, that I won’t be able to walk that far to [the paddy fields].”
Older people in general, and older women in particular, are also under-represented in camp leadership, denying them a voice in decision-making.
“Older people need to be better included in all aspects of humanitarian response – from having their voices inform initial assessments to being involved in assistance programs. Responding more effectively to older people’s rights begins with engaging their unique skills and perspective,” said Matthew Wells.
For many older people from ethnic minorities across Myanmar, the current displacement is the latest in a lifetime of conflict and military oppression. Amnesty International interviewed several dozen older people, including ethnic Kachin, Rohingya, and Shan, who had fled their homes three or more times – often as children, as younger adults, and again in older age. The repeated upheaval has caused economic hardship in addition to psychosocial harm.
“I’ve fled so many times since I was nine years old… I’ve had to be alert all the time. It doesn’t matter what I do – on the farm, in the orchard – I’ve never had peace of mind,” said Nding Htu Bu, 65, a Kachin woman living in an IDP camp.
Some older people have also witnessed one or more of their children being murdered or raped by the Myanmar military.
Yet, despite the acute and chronic harm, very little psychosocial care is targeted at, or even inclusive of, older people.
Amnesty International requested responses from the Bangladesh offices of the UN Refugee Agency and the International Organization for Migration to questions about the organization’s main findings. Both agencies cited challenges, especially during the early crisis period; the enormous progress in the overall provision of aid; and initiatives that are underway or planned to make assistance more inclusive for older people.
“The improvements in the camps are notable, but, for many older people, they have been much too slow and remain insufficient. Older people’s rights should inform humanitarian response and resourcing from a crisis’s first days, not as an afterthought. Anything else fails to meet core humanitarian principles: respond based on need, and leave no one behind,” said Matthew Wells.
“For their part, donor governments must provide greater support for the response in both Myanmar and Bangladesh and ensure that implementing partners are assessing and meeting older people’s specific needs.”