This schoolteacher spoke to Amnesty International as she was fleeing the intense fighting that forced more than 2 million people out of their homes in Pakistan 's North West Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), abutting the Afghan border.
Vedanta's alumina refinery at Lanjigarh, seen from Kenduguda village, Orissa , India , March 2009. Marginalized communities, including landless farmers and Adivasis, in several states were threatened with forced evictions to accommodate industrial and other business projects.
Her sentiments apply equally to the millions of other people across the Asia-Pacific region who have been forced, whether through insecurity or economic necessity, to leave their homes and, in many cases, their countries.
At the beginning of the year, nearly half a million Pakistanis were already displaced. Although the communities Amnesty International spoke to had been subject to the Taleban's harsh practices – including public executions, torture, and severe restrictions on women and girls' ability to receive health care and attend school – most explained that they had fled out of fear of the Pakistani government's brutal counter-insurgency offensives. Indeed, by April, as the Taleban aggressively extended their control to areas within easy driving distance of Islamabad , the government launched another major assault, prompting 2 million more people to flee.
The government's response to the long-standing conflict in the north-western border with Afghanistan has vacillated between appeasement and extreme violence; neither strategy indicating a government committed to protecting the rights of the Pakistani people. In fact, there is a clear link between the surging conflict and decades of successive Pakistani governments ignoring the rights of the millions who live in the difficult terrain of north-western Pakistan , evading accountability for current or past abuses. Even now, the people of the Tribal Areas bordering Afghanistan do not have the same rights as the other citizens of Pakistan : under the colonial era Frontier Crimes Regulation (1901) that still governs most administrative and judicial aspects of their lives, they are outside the writ of Pakistan 's national assembly as well as the judiciary. Pakistanis living in the FATA region are legally subject to collective punishment, that is, the government can punish any and all members of a tribe for crimes committed on its territory, or for “acting in a hostile or unfriendly manner” or in any way abetting or failing to provide evidence of a crime. At the same time, the residents of FATA suffer some of the highest levels of maternal mortality, infant mortality, and illiteracy (particularly for girls and women) in the entire region.
By the end of 2009, millions of people across the Asia-Pacific region were still waiting for their governments to protect their rights. Whether in their own homes or in makeshift shelters, accountability for the injustice they suffer remained an ideal celebrated more often in the breach, especially for the marginalized and powerless. But for people on the move, whether crossing international frontiers as refugees, asylum-seekers and migrant workers, or travelling within the borders of their own country due to displacement or for work; nobody assumed responsibility for them. They lacked the standing to assert their human rights, and they faced violations of all of them: civil, political, economic, social and cultural.
The vast majority of the people displaced by armed conflict sought shelter within the borders of their own country. Most were lucky enough to receive humanitarian assistance to stave off immediate starvation or deadly disease, but the vast majority of the displaced suffered from insufficient sanitation, health care, and education. They had no way of speaking out about their situation or getting redress for the wrongs that had led to their displacement in the first place.
Some 300,000 Sri Lankans were trapped on a narrow coastal strip of north-eastern Sri Lanka from January to mid-May between the retreating Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the advancing Sri Lankan military. In many instances, the LTTE prevented them from fleeing, while the government rained shells upon the area. Many thousands were killed.
There was little sign that the Sri Lankan authorities would provide accountability for any of the atrocities allegedly committed by both sides during the fighting, especially in its final bloody phase, despite a promise to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon.
The Sri Lankan government also promised to allow hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils who survived the war to return home, but in fact more than 100,000 remained in military-run camps by year's end, denied their freedom of movement. Many of them had previously survived months of difficult conditions as they were forced to travel with retreating LTTE forces who forcibly recruited civilians, including children, and in some cases used them as human shields. The government of Sri Lanka , citing varying security concerns, barred independent monitors from freely assessing the detained population's wellbeing. This lack of access stymied efforts to gather information about violations of humanitarian law during the long conflict, and consequently blocked accountability.
Tens of thousands of Afghans were displaced by a combination of escalating violence by the Taleban and the inability of the central government and its international allies to improve the country's political and economic situation. The Afghan Taleban were responsible for some two thirds of the more than 2,400 civilian casualties, with the peak of the attacks occurring as the Taleban tried to disrupt the presidential election.
Despite the Taleban's attacks, millions of Afghans turned out to exercise their right to vote on election day, only to have their selection undermined as a result of the failure of the Afghan government and its international supporters to provide an adequate human rights protection mechanism. Supporters of the main candidates, including President Hamid Karzai, intimidated and harassed political activists and journalists before, during, and after the elections. The balloting itself was immediately criticized by independent observers as fraudulent, and the process of verifying the results dragged on for months, further eroding the election's legitimacy and the Afghan people's right to participate in the conduct of their public affairs.
Afghan women again paid a high price in the conflict, as the Taleban targeted women human rights defenders and activists as well as schools and health clinics, particularly those for girls and women, while ongoing insecurity eroded the very modest gains Afghan women had made since the fall of the Taleban government.
In the conflict-afflicted Philippines island of Mindanao , more than 200,000 civilians continued to live in camps or makeshift shelters, sometimes surrounded by a heavy military presence despite the July ceasefire between the Philippine army and the insurgent Moro Islamic Liberation Front. A significant element in the fighting was the lawlessness of paramilitary groups and militias, controlled and funded by local politicians and operating without any legal accountability.
The history of impunity for these forces formed the backdrop to the shocking, execution-style killing of at least 57 people, including more than 30 journalists, on 23 November on the eve of registration for local gubernatorial elections. The egregious nature of the crime led the government to impose martial law briefly to reimpose its writ and press charges against several members of the powerful Ampatuan family, which has dominated the province's politics for a decade.
Repression of dissent
In other parts of the Asia-Pacific region, it was not sharp conflict that spurred the dislocation of people and the subsequent denial of their rights, but rather ongoing repression.
Thousands of people fled North Korea and Myanmar to get away from their governments' ongoing and systematic violation of human rights. North Koreans mainly sought to escape political repression and the country's economic crisis by crossing the Chinese border illegally. If caught by the Chinese authorities and forcibly returned, they faced detention, forced labour and torture, with some deaths occurring while in custody.
China considered all undocumented North Koreans as economic migrants, rather than refugees, and continued to prevent the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, from having access to them. In 2009, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea stated that most North Korean border crossers into China were entitled to international protection because of the threat of persecution or punishment upon return.
North Korean authorities also continued to bar their own citizens from freely moving around inside the country. People had to obtain official permission to travel. Although the authorities have reportedly relaxed enforcement of such rules, as thousands have left their homes in search of food or economic opportunities, people remained vulnerable under the current law and were often subjected to extortion by officials.
Thousands of people were displaced in Myanmar as government security forces routinely violated the laws of war in campaigns against armed opposition groups from several of the country's ethnic minorities. The government continued to repress political dissent, with 2,100 political prisoners in detention. The most prominent detainee, Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been in detention for 13 of the past 20 years, mostly under house arrest, was sentenced to 18 more months under house arrest on 11 August after an unfair trial by a court in Yangon's Insein prison. The charges stemmed from the uninvited visit of a US man who swam to her house and spent two nights there in early May.
The year witnessed another painful reminder of the desperation of Myanmar 's Rohingyas, a persecuted Muslim minority from western Myanmar , when thousands of them fled on boats sailing for Thailand and Malaysia . The Thai security forces, intent on preventing an influx of refugees, expelled hundreds of them, setting them adrift in unseaworthy boats with little or no food and water.
As the year was ending, Thai authorities also forcibly returned around 4,500 Lao Hmong, including 158 recognized refugees and many others fleeing persecution, to Laos . The Lao government refused requests from the UN and others to be allowed access to monitor the conditions of those who were returned.
In December, the Chinese government successfully pressed Cambodian authorities to return 20 Uighur asylum-seekers who were fleeing the crackdown after the July unrest in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR). The move was part of China 's increasingly assertive strategy of pushing other governments to avoid any support for dissenting voices within China . The Chinese government stepped up its pressure on all internal challenges, detaining and harassing dozens of lawyers and human rights defenders. In particular, Chinese authorities targeted the signatories of Charter '08, a document calling for greater respect for human rights and popular participation.
China maintained its position as the world's leading executioner, although the exact extent of the problem remained shrouded in China 's state secrecy laws.
The vast majority of people who left their homes in the Asia-Pacific region were driven by economic need. Millions of people in China who had moved to the country's economic hubs were forced back to their homes in rural areas, more aware of the growing inequities between China's newly wealthy and the millions still living with inadequate health care and education.
In 2009, as in all recent years, millions left their homes in countries such as the Philippines, Nepal, Indonesia and Bangladesh, to pursue livelihoods in others, namely South Korea, Japan and Malaysia, or even further abroad. Despite some improvements in the national and bilateral legal frameworks governing the hiring, transportation and treatment of migrant labourers, most of those participating in this massive global flow of migrant labour were not able to enjoy their rights fully. In many cases, this was due to government practices, but they also often found themselves as easy targets of heightened racism and xenophobia in economically difficult times.
The discrimination that migrant workers faced throughout the region, even in their own countries, formed the backdrop to one of the worst recent outbreaks of unrest in China 's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. The protests began with non-violent demonstrations against government inaction after a violent riot at a factory in Shaoguan , Guangdong province, resulted in two deaths.
On 26 June, hundreds of Uighur workers clashed with thousands of Han Chinese workers at a factory where Uighurs had been recruited from the XUAR. By early July, the protests in the XUAR had turned into full-scale riots, with reports that more than 190 people were killed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the decades of official marginalization and discrimination of the Uighur community, the authorities blamed Uighur activists for the violence, without allowing for independent monitoring or proper trials. China executed at least nine of those they blamed within months, and the authorities pledged to respond to further unrest with a heavy hand.
One of the starkest examples of the abuse of migrant workers came to light in Malaysia , where foreign workers made up a fifth of the total workforce. Official records divulged this year showed that Malaysian authorities caned almost 35,000 migrants between 2002 and 2008, many for immigration offences – cruel and degrading punishment on a monumental scale. In addition to undocumented workers, documented workers whose passports have been withheld by their employers, asylum-seekers and refugees were also at risk of being caned. Thousands of migrant workers languished in detention centres falling short of international standards, often with little due process or legal protection.
Even where migrant workers received greater legal protection, their marginalized status still made them vulnerable to abuse. In South Korea – one of the first Asian countries to legally recognize the rights of migrant workers – the state failed to protect migrant workers from being abused by their employers, trafficked for sexual exploitation, and denied their wages for long periods.
Housing – forced evictions
In many other cases, economic motives prompted authorities to forcibly evict people from their homes. Cambodian authorities, for example, forcibly evicted low-income families from a redevelopment site in central Phnom Penh after three years of harassing and intimidating them. In another example, Cambodian authorities evicted 31 families living with HIV and AIDS in Phnom Penh , and took the majority of them to a grossly inadequate resettlement site with limited access to crucial health care.
In India , the development of aluminium mining and processing facilities in the eastern state of Orissa threatened to dislocate thousands of Indigenous people who hold the site to be sacred. In the two years that Vedanta's aluminium refinery at Lanjigarh has been running, local communities have had to contend with contaminated water, polluted air and constant dust and noise. Further plans to open a mine in the Niyamgiri Hills threatened to undermine the lives and livelihoods of the Dongria Kondh, an Adivasi Indigenous community.
In April 2009, the Indian authorities gave Sterlite Industries India Ltd and the state-owned Orissa Mining Corporation permission to mine bauxite in Dongria Kondh traditional lands for the next 25 years.
In Papua New Guinea , police forcibly evicted the residents of around 100 houses near the Porgera mine operated by a subsidiary of Canadian transnational corporation Barrick Gold.
In Viet Nam , a mob, apparently with official backing, evicted nearly 200 Buddhist monks and nuns from a monastery in central Viet Nam . The group had been sheltering there since they were evicted from another monastery in September, by a similar mob. The authorities denied any involvement, but consistently failed to provide any protection for the monks and nuns, or ensure they were offered suitable alternative accommodation.
In each case, the destruction of their home significantly undermined the ability of the people concerned to enjoy their rights, and to get redress for the violations of them.
In a year when the Copenhagen Climate Change summit sought, and failed, to achieve a global consensus to address environmental change, it was easy to see the impact of large-scale shifts in the human environment. The government of the Maldives held a cabinet meeting underwater just before the Copenhagen meeting – a stunt that graphically captured the very real possibility that the small island state would disappear under the Indian Ocean sooner rather than later. Several Pacific states also announced that they feared being submerged.
In Tibet and Nepal where the headwaters of some of the world's most important rivers are located, and in Bangladesh , the possibility of catastrophic droughts or floods prompted dislocation and attendant political instability. Thus environmental concerns led to human rights challenges – and as is often the case, it was the poorest and most marginalized communities who were most susceptible to the realities of the physical environment, and less likely to receive assistance from their own governments.
By and large, the countries in the Asia-Pacific region have not responded adequately to the challenges of protecting the rights of those who have left their homes behind. Most countries in the region have not even ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, which sets out the rights of people who have fled their country due to persecution or clear danger.
Frameworks to protect the rights of internally displaced people remained even more poorly developed, compared with the international legal framework for the treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers. But the greatest challenge for the protection of dislocated people in the region remained the poor record of accountability for many of the region's governments.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in the case of Sri Lanka .
The UN Human Rights Council on 27 May passed a deeply flawed resolution on Sri Lanka that not only ignored calls for an international investigation into alleged atrocities during the conflict, but actually commended the Sri Lankan government. Global politics and expediency trumped concern for the wellbeing of hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans. The international community also continued to ignore the large-scale human rights violations that forced thousands of the country's citizens to flee from their homes.
China and India, apparently vying for access to Myanmar's resources, did not use their political and economic influence to curb the Myanmar government's practice of excluding internal critics like Aung San Suu Kyi, or of ending the repression of various ethnic minorities. Even the widely reported spectacle of the Rohingyas adrift on the sea did not prompt appropriate action from Myanmar 's neighbours in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).
All ASEAN members finally ratified the ASEAN Charter, containing several provisions addressing human rights, including one that called for the establishment of a human rights body. Nevertheless, most countries in the region had still not signed up to many of the major global human rights treaties. In particular, Amnesty International believes that the region shirked its responsibility to establish a clear regional response to the ongoing problems created by flows of people across borders, or the underlying human rights problems that prompt such movements.
There are strong indications that the rate of movement of people across the globe, within and across borders, is going to increase, whether as a result of conflict, economic need, or environmental disruptions. Yet there are no signs that the international community is amending and adapting the current legal framework to address this development. What is required is an acknowledgement that people leave their homes for a variety of reasons, and that, whatever the reason, every human is still entitled to enjoy the full range of their human rights.
Individual nation states cannot always address the migration of their own people – whether because the scale of internal movement is too great, or because it crosses regional and global borders. This understanding has grown in recent decades but must accelerate further to accommodate the reality of a global population on the move.
The people of the Asia-Pacific region constitute a major portion of the global population of migrant workers, refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced people. They are waiting for the region's governments and regional groups to follow and facilitate these trends.