Yee Htun speaks about respecting refugee rights in the midst of a global pandemic

Landscape of Cox's Bazar Refugee Camp, filled with makeshift houses and roofs that are crumbling.
The refugee camp in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh houses hundreds of thousands of refugees. Credit: Ingebjørg Kårstad/Norwegian Refugee Council

Across southeast Asia, hundreds of thousands of persecuted ethnic minorities in poverty face a new threat: the COVID-19 pandemic. The Rohingya people have faced decades of systematic discrimination, statelessness and targeted violence. Since August 2017, more than 745,000 ethnic Rohingya have escaped oppression and violence in Myanmar and live in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. In November 2019, a case was filed against Myanmar before the International Court of Justice alleging that the crimes committed against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group, violate the Genocide Convention.

Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic was one of 50 organizations to send a joint letter to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh urging the government to uphold refugee rights as the world faces and fights the novel coronavirus. Still, ongoing violence in Myanmar means individuals continue to flee, this time facing border restrictions and lockdowns. Most recently, boats of escaping Rohingya were turned away at Malaysia’s border, a move that sparked condemnation from human rights groups.

The Human Rights Program recently spoke with Yee Htun, clinical instructor and lecturer on law in the International Human Rights Clinic, to learn more about how Myanmar and those who have fled the state are confronting this crisis. Htun was born in Myanmar and fled the country after the pro-democratic uprising in 1988.

Human Rights Program: How is the pandemic impacting the Rohingya, both inside and outside of Myanmar?

Yee Htun: The Rohingya community and internally displaced persons from Myanmar are facing a huge crisis. They’re in clustered camps that are cramped and populous, with multiple families living in small confined spaces. Cox’s Bazar is host to the largest refugee camp in the world. For those communities, certain protective measures are practically impossible. For example, privileges that we take for granted like social distancing, wash stations, running water and access to personal protection equipment are scarce or difficult to obtain in those settings, making the Rohingya population incredibly vulnerable.

My biggest fear is how quickly the disease could spread once a single case reaches the camps. We’re currently hearing that there are a few cases reported roughly two hours away from the refugee camps. The community is ill-prepared to meet such an onslaught. They have already suffered a tremendous amount of psychological and physical trauma fleeing Myanmar. Many suffered detrimental health issues and injuries from the military’s clearance operations and genocidal campaign. It’s this intersection of factors that makes them particularly at risk.

Inside Myanmar, it’s another story. Early on in the COVID-19 crisis, Myanmar officials took a nationalist stance toward the disease. They claimed that the entire country was somehow immune even as their Southeast Asian neighbors were suffering. This narrative of exceptionalism was and is extremely dangerous especially combined with hospitals without necessary equipment, not to mention proper public health protocols and preparedness to handle the pandemic. Then as the virus spread, the government formed a military-led committee which notably excluded Ministry of Health officials. Now, while the country is admitting that they have cases of COVID-19, they have been blaming it on people returning from overseas to Myanmar. Even more worrying, we’re still seeing ongoing fighting and in fact, in places like Rakhine and Chin state, the military’s offensives have intensified. This is in spite of different ethnic armed organizations calling for a ceasefire because of COVID-19. The United Nations itself has urged a global ceasefire. But the Burmese military has flouted those recommendations.

HRP: As boats of Rohingya have unsuccessfully sought refuge in Malaysia in recent weeks, there’s been rampant hate speech on social media against the community. How does this fit within the broader landscape of hate speech against ethnic minorities in and outside of Myanmar?

Htun: It’s a tragedy that we are seeing the Rohingya community persecuted in Myanmar through violence and hate speech, and now, we are seeing the same targeted rhetoric thrown at them in places like Malaysia and Bangladesh. Social media has played a large role in this and ultra-nationalist groups have strategically used it to portray the Rohingya as terrorists, illegal migrants, and opportunistic interlopers who are going to be a resource drain and engulf the country. Our clinic will be releasing a report soon on hate speech in Myanmar, its drivers, main narratives and its impact on religious and ethnic minorities and human rights defenders. In a way, our findings fit in with larger global populist movements. Whether we’re talking about in the U.S. or Hungary, this kind of “othering” rhetoric is frequently used to justify security measures and restrict immigration. And the pandemic offers a potential carte blanche excuse to exclude and infringe people’s human rights. Now, border countries that could have provided asylum are saying they need to safeguard their own countries from infection.

HRP: Border lockdowns and restrictions are occurring all over the world as states try to slow the spread of disease. How should countries approach communities seeking asylum?

Htun: There are basic, fundamental principles of international law countries are supposed to abide by, such as the principle of non-refoulement. This means that if a community runs the risk of persecution in the country they are fleeing from, they have the right to seek refuge. Broadly, we’re seeing political leaders reveal their priorities and values in showing how they receive vulnerable communities. There are economic and international incentives for receiving refugees into one’s country, including international aid, and many have downplayed this and how migrant communities contribute to their host countries.

In the wake of Myanmar not taking responsibility for its treatment of the Rohingya, the surrounding countries should either ensure this vulnerable community is able to return in a safe and dignified manner or ensure that their human rights are not further eroded. I would hope that humanity and understanding would trump this rhetoric of division and hate.

HRP: While continuing to host Rohingya, Bangladesh has imposed some new restrictions around the refugee camps. What can you tell us about those restrictions?

Htun: One of the biggest restrictions has been a limitation on the internet in the refugee camps. It’s critical for access to information and mobilization, but also, it’s an important tool just for staying in touch with loved ones. What I hear from my Rohingya partners is that the internet lockdown may have been in response to protests they have had in the camps in the past. After many fled from Myanmar, the refugee community organized massive sit-ins to demand justice, accountability, and citizenship rights. According to local partners at that time, the authorities in Bangladesh revoked their ability to access the internet for fear of its use as an organizing tool. We think that the restrictions we’re seeing are in response to these past rallies, but right now, it is especially dangerous to limit anyone’s access to information as a matter of health and safety.

I’m particularly worried because if individuals do not have a way of remotely accessing information, there’s even more of a risk that they cannot physically distance themselves. They have to go out and find news. If the Bangladeshi authorities institute new rules or provide updates and offer public health information in the camps, how are refugees supposed to find out in a safe way? We’ve seen Bangladesh start to allow some internet access recently but it’s still not a free flow of information and only amounts to lifting restrictions for an hour here and there.

HRP: Are there additional repercussions caused by the restriction on internet in the camps?

Htun: It does cast a negative light on the Rohingya for the host communities that surround the refugee camps. When Bangladesh institutes limitations on the camps, the villages that surround the camps are also subjected to those restrictions. It causes a ripple effect that creates even more hostility for a community that’s been vilified by so many. What’s critical right now is that people have access to information so that they can protect themselves.

HRP: In light of the pandemic, what’s the status of the case against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice?

Htun: It’s preceding as planned, and we have heard no reports of the contrary. Myanmar is supposed to file a report to the ICJ in May explaining what they have done to prevent genocide. I’m nervous that the pandemic might be used to delay proceedings and make excuses. One other important element of the restrictions around the internet is that you’re also seeing internet shutdowns inside Myanmar in conflict zones. This makes it impossible to report war crimes and crimes against humanity and to provide adequate documentation of the atrocities that are still happening within the country.

HRP: How has the pandemic affected your clinical projects? How has it changed the advocacy that you’re doing for the Rohingya and within Myanmar?

Htun: We’ve been helping the Rohingya community draft Universal Periodic Review (UPR) submissions, which is a process of reporting to the U.N. Human Rights Council on the country’s human rights records. We are working with partner organizations to submit reports pertaining to educational rights and women’s rights, as well as submitting a report on hate speech from the International Human Rights Clinic.

Both myself and my colleague Tyler Giannini, [HRP and clinical co-director and clinical professor of law], have been engaged in advocacy related to the current situation, including joining a coalition to ask Bangladesh to lift restrictions in the refugee camps as well as working behind the scenes to take down hate speech against the Rohingya. We’re still working with the community and trying to help amplify voices and promote access to international accountability mechanisms. We’re also still very much engaged in law reform efforts. I have a clinical team that’s been focusing on strengthening a draft violence against women law, and whenever Parliament resumes in Myanmar, we’ll get back to work on that. Even though we’ve gone remote at HLS, the students and I have been very active.

The pandemic has changed a lot for clinical projects and human rights advocacy. We were just in Cox’s Bazar in January, and partners have requested that we come back to Bangladesh in the fall. I don’t think that’s going to be possible. I also don’t know if it will be possible to do advocacy at the U.N. in the same way or what that advocacy looks like from a remote perspective. But that doesn’t mean that we’re not going to put in our best effort and innovate. I just did a U.S. State Department briefing last week remotely, and we were joined with stakeholders from Southeast Asia to talk about hate speech. The work is still ongoing. The nature of the work has changed, but in light of how the pandemic has exacerbated the current crises in the region, it’s more important than ever that we continue our advocacy.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.