Myanmar: Shan Villagers and the Salween Dam Fight

Development is sparking rising tensions in southeastern Myanmar.

Salween River via Shutterstock

Salween River via Shutterstock

[ Originally published in The Diplomat: ]

The increasing army presence to defend the construction of a controversial Salween river dam in southeastern Myanmar’s Shan state has sparked heightened concerns among rural villagers, who are determined to fight the development that threatens their livelihoods.

“The Burma army tanks are even moving there, but we are not afraid because we have nothing to lose. If the dam goes on, our farms will be underwater and we will lose everything,” said Khur Hseng, a Shan member of the Shan Sapawa Environmental Organisation, a civil society group that banded together in 2012 to defend the local environment and land rights.

In recent months, scores of government soldiers have flooded into the area surrounding the Mon Ton dam in southern Shan sate, and thirty-nine armed battalions – a fourfold increase in troops in the past twenty years – now guard the massive 241-meter high concrete structure which will dominate more than 32 kilometers of the Salween river, according to the Shan community-based organizations (CBOs). Local opposition is strong, but the Mon Ton dam (also called Tasan dam) project is forging ahead based on agreements signed in 2007 and approved by Parliament in February 2013 by the Chinese Three Gorge’s Corporation, the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), and the Burmese Ministry of Electric Power.

Locals feel that they have nothing to gain and everything to lose from the dam – which will produce roughly 7,100 megawatts of electricity and export 90 percent of it to Thailand and China. Public fury over not being consulted prior to launching developments is also stirring.

“The Salween basin is politically and geographically marginalized. In the basin it is ethnic minority people so they have not been included in the decision-making,” said Pianporn Deetes, the Thailand Campaign Coordinator for International Rivers.

There are six dams planned for the Salween, crossing through the villages of upwards of 50,000 people who stand to lose their homes if the projects go ahead, and who have petitioned against the dams, according toInternational Rivers. Though the Australian consulting company hired by the Myanmar government, the Snowy Mountain Engineering Company (SMEC), say that it is trying to carry out social and environmental impact studies, as construction has already started with tens of kilometers of the river already off-limits to local villagers, people feel it is not real consultation.

“Contrary to media reports, SMEC has tried to engage with local civil society organizations on numerous occasions, with limited success,” said Geraldine Quinlan, the General Manager of Corporate Services at SMEC based in Melbourne.

SMEC has encountered near uniform protest by the residents of villages, many of whom have even boycotted meetings as a sign of opposition. In the past six months, hundreds of villagers from at least ten towns in Taunggyi, Mon Ton, Kung Hing, Mon Paeng, and Mong Pu Long have either blocked or protested at consultations, wearing anti-dam t-shirts to proposed meetings and handing out posters to the company explaining why the dam project should not go ahead.

“It is apparent that SMEC’s assessment is simply a sham, aimed to rubber stamp the Mong Ton dam plans rather than objectively assess the project’s actual impacts,” said Shan CBOs in a statement at a press conference in Bangkok last month.

Human rights advocates say that, given the history of forced relocations, conflict and abuse between ethnic populations by the former military government, investors should not sign agreements for major infrastructure projects with the government before speaking with the ethnic populations living on the designated sites.

“What we always condemn is that before approaching the people, investors approach the government. Before they should engage with the people first. At least then they know what the people think and whether they should continue the project or not,” said Rual Lian Thang, the Natural Resource Governance program coordinator for the Heinrich Boell Foundation, an international think tank for policy reform headquartered in Berlin.

“They did not even inform or try to work with local leaders,” said Hseng, referring to the government’s lack of transparency surrounding the start of construction for the Mon Ton dam, which will have a 641km reservoir spanning along two-thirds of Shan state.

Many villages and culturally significant sites will be submerged in water, including the 120-household strong Sawng Lak on the eastern bank of the Salween and a 700-year old pagoda, Ho Leung temple, in Mon Paeng township in the Wa Special Administrative region.

Communities also fear that they will not be adequately compensated for the loss of land, communities, and river water. While the government has promised compensation, based on past examples – such as the relocations forMyitsone Dam on the Irrawaddy river in Kachin state – left displaced villagers with such a small plot of land they could no longer farm as a means of survival, according to Boell Foundation’s Tsang.

Active and ongoing conflict between ethnic minority rebel armies and the government military – which have forced 300,000 people to relocate in the past two decades – make it impossible for any development projects to proceed in a sustainable and responsible way, say social and environmental experts.

In July, SMEC attempted to visit villages in Wa region, along the Salween river’s eastern bank bordering the Chinese border, but the United State Wa Army (USWA) blocked their visit due to instability and growing tensions, which erupted in fighting near Mon Ton dam in early June, according to a recent press release by the Shan State Action Network.

Though conflict has prevented extensive environmental studies from being carried out, a 2008 report by the Karen Environmental Social Action Network (KESAN) documented  at least 42 rare, indigenous species of plants and animals at risk of becoming endangered by hydropower.

But with decisions over the fate of Shan villagers and their biodiverse river being made behind closed doors thousands of kilometers away in Naypyidaw, Bangkok and Beijing, analysts say the fight ahead will be long. But villagers are prepared.

“This is our land, our river. They need to get out from here, because we do not accept or agree,” said Hseng.

Dana MacLean is a journalist covering Southeast Asia.

How we fuel child poverty

Painting by Maia Kirchkheli

Painting by Maia Kirchkheli

This article reflects on my investigation of children living and working in the streets in Bangkok, published in a series “Hidden in Plain Sight: Bangkok’s Invisible Children Exploited For Profit” which was recognized by the SOPA Awards 2015 for Excellence in Feature Writing.

You swallow your guilt and pretend like you don’t see the dirt streaked children begging on the sidewalk. Or, pull change from your pocket and plunk it into their cups smiling back at their grateful eyes, as you walk away awash with a sense of self satisfaction. This is the typical confrontation of individual compassion pressing up against a systematic problem. Well-meaning, charity-oriented Western religious credo says we should give to those less fortunate than ourselves, but fails to recognize feeding dependence pastes a bandaid on flawed social structures. That is charity in a nutshell: papering over chronic social issues while root causes expand beneath the surface, unseen. In the case of child beggars, an act of kindness unwittingly fuels an impoverished underworld that thrives off child labour, slashing their futures.

We rarely probe the surface of our physical environment. In Southeast Asia — particularly Thailand and Cambodia — children selling flowers at traffic lights or sitting beside adults on corners with a cup full of change are as commonplace as food stalls. How many times do we hurry by them, or look away from the car window, as if they are part of the scenery in our urban landscape? Everyone scurries by, on the way to work, a dinner we are 15 minutes late for, a long-awaited coffee with a friend we have lost touch with, a yoga class. People might feel a twinge of guilt or sadness, but then suddenly their phone is ringing or they’ve spotted a much sought-after taxi to hail. Nothing is questioned, probed, investigated. A small face in the street is taken at face value: “Poverty. [End of story].” But after years of turning over rocks as a journalist, as soon as someone whittles an issue down to poverty, I automatically suspect they have jumped at a simple word that has been used for decades to hide a multitude of sins.

Of course everyone should question inequality. But no one has time. I am lucky that my work is to dig beneath the first layer of a situation, to seek its heart, to scrutinize and contextualize and expose the multiple truths, while shining light on voices not frequently heard in mainstream societal discourse — burdens heaped on the marginalized by policies (or lack thereof) which lead to their daily downfalls. When I was researching for “Hidden in Plain Sight: Bangkok’s Invisible Children Exploited for Profit”, I was shocked to learn about the all-too-frequent collusion of relatives in a market, dissolving a child’s future by crassly amputating what is often the only opportunity they will ever have to dredge themselves from a life of constantly scraping the bottom of the barrel.

A child works to sell photographs in Yangon, Myanmar/ Dana MacLean.

A child works to sell photographs in Yangon, Myanmar/ Dana MacLean.

Education is one of the only paths of escape — in Thailand it is also one of the few universal social goods offered. After the age of 12, when children are no longer considered profitable on the streets, they lose their appeal to the adults who exploit them. But by that age, they are too often accustomed to ways of the streets, or too ashamed to study with others half their age, according to Friends International, a social enterprise network launched in 1994 to unshackle children tied to the begging profession.

As I scoured the streets with Friends International, accompanying the social workers on a nighttime mission to identify at-risk children and intervene, a kindly looking grandmother with a toddler pleaded with me for money for food. Meanwhile the social worker whispered in my left ear the octogenarian was a chronic gambler from the Cambodian border who repeatedly abducted her three grandchildren from their village, and primary school, to beg for money that would be thrown away in grimy Poi Pet casinos.

Later, while investigating a second overlapping issue (“Escaping abuse for torments of the street, Bangkok’s homeless youth can’t get a break”), I visited Childline Foundation’s youth centre, named The Hub, a safehouse nestled in a slum near the train station — the last stop, where destitute runaways disembark. Navigating the neighbourhood where sex workers loiter on streets and gangs of punked out teens huff glue canisters made me nervous, but upon stepping into The Hub, all apprehension dissipated. It is a rare offering of safety in hostile territory, a place where the kids can store their belongings in a locker, have a shower, sleep without fear, and attend classes. Youths leave their weapons at the door.

In the interviews the street teens told me how their alcoholic fathers terrorized them into panic-stricken sleepless nights, how the chronic battering and bruises that plagued their lives make the streets safer than home. They find security in groups, one stays on guard at night with a switchblade to ward off threats, and somehow they find a way to buy food everyday — loading goods on trollies in menial labour jobs or selling their bodies. They were just kids with a keen sense of survival, and as the social workers at the centre said, they were kids subjected to so many atrocities at home that life on the street paled in comparison. Sometimes the things that shock us are only the tip of the iceberg.

Nui, 19, ran away from home when he was 12 to escape abuse by his alcoholic father.

Nui, 19, ran away from home when he was 12 to escape abuse by his alcoholic father.

What these youths represent are people who have have been failed many times. First by their families, then by the absence of an adequate child welfare system. Without a home, how can they attend school? Like their younger begging counterparts, the void left by the dysfunctional adults in their life fractures their future. It isn’t just poverty. Any parent or adult that takes their child out of school and puts them in the streets, does so for a reason. And that reason is that there is profit to made. Of course they are poor, of course the extra income helps them to eat. But if it wasn’t profitable, that child wouldn’t be on the streets, exposed everyday to a seedy nightlife, racing traffic and human predators.

Systemic problems need systemic remedies, but our role is important too. While Friends International, plays a vital role creating alternative livelihoods for families, parents will be reluctant to do so unless the cash flow a child earns from begging dries up. While The Hub can offer temporary respite from street life and basic technical training, if no one hires them, they will always live as drifters. Even the picture painted by the articles — about the daily experiences of children robbed of protection by the broken adults in their midst — is just a small piece of the puzzle.

But at least I hope it exposed an angle of the world not often seen, and will make us think before rummaging in our pockets for coins the next time we see a child beggar. I hope it will contribute to the slow chipping away of a subconscious acceptance of poverty as part of life. Poverty does not have to exist. It is created and endorsed by individual actions and state policies. It is systemic, multifaceted, different in each case yet perpetuated through generations in a cycle of strangled opportunities. Whatever the case, poverty is never simple, and neither will be the solution.

Trade and transfat in the Pacific

Trade and transfat in the Pacific

BANGKOK, 17 November 2014 (IRIN) – Diminished agricultural production and unhealthy imports are contributing to some of the world’s highest obesity and diabetes rates in the Pacific Islands. Thousands of kilometres away from this backdrop, high-level officials are gathering for the only second-ever global nutrition conference in Rome, starting 19 November, to consolidate agreement on an international framework to improve nutrition.

Six out of the 10 countries with the world’s highest diabetes prevalence are in the Pacific Islands, according to the Belgium-based International Diabetes Federation. In Fiji, two people undergo limb amputations almost daily due to the disease, according to local media.

“Non-communicable diseases [NCDs] have been declared a crisis for the Pacific. Most of it is [due to] the food environment where people live, where there are just not many healthy options,” Peter Sousa Hoejskov, a technical officer for food safety and non-communicable diseases with the UN World Health Organization (WHO) based in Suva, Fiji’s capital, told IRIN.


Experts say combating this disabling and deadly NCD trend will require everything from more nutritional education to trade policy changes and local agriculture investments.

Warning signs for NCD are mounting: According to WHO, in at least 10 out of 14 inhabited Pacific island countries where health data is gathered, more than half the population is overweight.

Residents in 14 Pacific island countries and five nearby “territories” who used to consume home-grown foods like root crops, or other locally-produced foods, have over the past decade increasingly turned to low-cost, low-nutrient, processed foods imported from abroad.

Some 27 percent of the food consumed on Vanuatu Island is imported; the figure goes up to 91 percent in the Marshall Islands.

Local crop yields down

With agriculture yields on the decline, high-sugar and high-sodium packaged goods have become the “new staples”, said Hoejskov.

“The soil here is not good for farming. Luckily we have the shop nearby so we can buy instant noodles and rice. My son eats [instant noodles] almost three times per day,” said Sarah Tareoha, a mother of eight living in Marau, the eastern part of Guadalcanal Island in Solomon Islands.

The traditional staple sweet potato has 55mg of sodium per serving and negligible fat; one serving of instant noodles has 1000mg of sodium and is 20 percent fat.

According to a 2012 Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC – an intergovernmental organization made up of 26 nations) vulnerability analysis, “significant pests and disease, combined with reduced soil fertility, are among the many factors impacting agriculture production in the communities.”

While agricultural data is generally scant for this part of the world, community testimony abounds.

Yams and sweet potatoes in Isabel Province of Solomon Islands typically took three months from planting to harvest, with nearly all planted seeds yielding crops, but now, villagers say, they take at least five months, and less than half a planted field bears fruit.

According to FAO, “declining competitiveness of farmers and fishers in the Pacific islands has reduced their capacity to supply both export and domestic markets at competitive prices.”

FAO says the best way to reduce food import dependence is by increasing local farmers’ capacity, including improved transportation infrastructure to reach markets, and easy access to credit and agricultural inputs.

Experts say changes are needed in the islands’ food supply structure to support local agriculture.

A principal driver of the consumption of unhealthy imported food, said Hoejskov, is that healthy, domestically-produced food is neither plentiful nor cheap enough to compete with low-priced imports, and the time needed to deliver local perishables to isolated islands – up to a week by plane, boat, and truck – is too long for them to survive.

Subsidizing the local production of fruits and vegetables can be one solution, said Hoejskov.

In Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, IRIN found that while a packet of instant noodles costs 26-70 US cents, locally grown cassava or sweet potato tubers cost 21 times that amount.

The damage of disease

If current trends continue, the NCD burden – which now accounts for 70 percent of all deaths in nine out of 10 Pacific countries that have collected mortality data – will increase, warn experts.

Health workers told IRIN they are noticing younger and younger populations developing obesity and diabetes.

“The youngest person to come to the clinic with diabetes type 2 was only 11 years old,” said Kama, a Fijian nutritionist.

“Until very recently people didn’t even understand the negative health consequences of high fat, high sodium food imports,” said Stephen McGarvey, an epidemiologist and director of Brown University’s International Health Institute. WHO is currently working with Pacific Island governments to develop food safety standards, and ensure nutrition labels are accurate and understandable to their populations.

But others say the problem is broader.


Experts point to a number of needed policy shifts.

Fiji, French Polynesia, Nauru, and Samoa have increased taxes on sugary soft drinks in the past decade, but it is still too soon to measure any health impact, noted WHO.

The economic interests behind the food industries from countries exporting to the Pacific Islands make prohibitions on products deemed unhealthy difficult, according to Hoejskov.

For example, when Samoa tried to block turkey tails (a popular but gristly meat cut made up of 42 percent fat) from the US in 2007 for health reasons, the US brought the case before the World Trade Organization (WTO) and in 2012, the WTO gave Samoa 12 months to eliminate the ban in order to remain a member. By May 2013, turkey tails were back on the Samoan table.

Similarly, in 2004, Tonga’s Ministry of Health campaigned to ban mutton flaps – the 50 percent fat sheep belly offcuts generally used for dog food in the exporting country, New Zealand – which had become a major staple in Tongan households. But Tonga’s pledge to join the WTO eventually trumped health concerns, and policies were scrapped by the time it finally joined in 2007.

A decade later, trade is not making good health any easier, noted Roger Mathisen, a Hanoi-based nutrition consultant working in Southeast Asia.

“Emerging threats [include] the new and controversial dispute chapters in international trade agreements such as the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) for the [food] industry to circumvent government’s sovereignty to enforce health and environment protection policies.”

Governments have tried to fight back.

“The Pacific region should not be treated as a dumping ground for unhealthy products that are unwanted in other countries,” declared governments in a statement concluding a Pacific sub-regional workshop in Fiji in 2013 on trade and NCDs.

Setting regional food standards is also key.

WHO has recommended Pacific governments not allow more than 1600mg of sodium per 100g of imported products such as bread, tinned meats, and instant noodles. Kiribas and Vanuatu are developing national food legislation with salt targets in early drafts, according to WHO.

“Most imported options are unhealthy, but at least governments can make sure that the products people buy comply to a certain level of healthiness… Hopefully, it won’t take long to have regulations in place,” said Hoejskov.


The case for including migration in the post-2015 agenda

The case for including migration in the post-2015 agenda

Smuggled migrants on edge of Sahara desert/ Photo courtesy of Ibrahim Diallo Manzo for IRIN

Smuggled migrants on edge of Sahara desert/ Photo courtesy of Ibrahim Diallo Manzo for IRIN

BANGKOK, 11 November 2014 (IRIN) – As the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) expire at the end of 2015, campaigners are calling for the inclusion of migrant worker protections in the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), noting that migrants contribute billions to reducing poverty – often at great cost to their personal safety and well-being.

The world’s estimated 232 million international migrants (2013 UN estimate) generated some US$400 billion in remittances for their families and communities back home in 2013, three times more than total overseas development assistance in the same year, according to the World Bank.

For the 10-15 percent of these migrants that the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates are undocumented, the human cost of their contributions to their home countries’ economies is often high, sometimes even fatal.

IOM estimates 40,000 migrants – almost all undocumented, including asylum-seekers – have died en route to a destination country since 2000.

An unknown number also lose their lives post-arrival in host countries as a result of unsafe working conditions.

But addressing these risks is politically sensitive, say activists, due to host countries’ fears about creating pull factors for migrants. Despite migrants’ significant contribution to national incomes, they are easy scapegoats for already overburdened health and education systems.

“Including migration in the SDGs would be a bold act,” said Kathleen Newland, co-founder of US-based NGO Migration Policy Institute (MPI). “The causes of migration and local costs of globalization are difficult to see, but people can see immigration,” she added, explaining that more awareness and outreach is needed at the national level to ease popular insecurity about all groups of migrant workers.

The working group on migration for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations(ASEAN) spent five years discussing how to implement the 2007 ASEAN Declaration on the Protection of Migrants. In 2012, the group dissolved without reaching an agreement.

Advocates hope that where regional organizations have fallen short in addressing protection of migrant rights, the SDGs can help make migration less deadly by encouraging states and international organizations to invest more resources.

Benefits of remittances

The socio-economic and development benefits of remittances are clear: for every 10 percent of a population that migrates to work in a higher income country, there is a 1.9 percent reduction in poverty in the country of origin, the World Bank calculates.

In Latin America, a 1 percent increase in remittances reduced infant mortality rates by 1.2 deaths per 1,000 babies, noted a 2013 report by Peter Sutherland, the UN Special Representative on international migration.

Households are more likely to spend remittances on health and education than other types of additional income, according to MPI.

“If reduction of poverty, increased rates of education, and better health outcomes are markers of development, strong evidence exists that remittances make a major contribution,” noted MPI in a 2013 policy brief.

Migrants arriving on Lampedusa in August 2007/ Photo courtesy of Sara Prestianni

Migrants arriving on Lampedusa in August 2007/ Photo courtesy of Sara Prestianni

So major that in Thailand after the military seized power in June 2014 and cracked down on the country’s undocumented foreign workers, leading to the deportation of tens of thousands, it was not long before they returned, said Reiko Harima, regional coordinator for the Secretariat of the Mekong Migration Network (MMN), a Bangkok-based umbrella advocacy group for Southeast Asian migrants.

“Even one week without wages is too long for them,” she explained.

Harima estimates over one million of Thailand’s migrants are undocumented.

Construction, fishing, and farming industries rely on the country’s 2.2 million migrants, according to the Federation of Thai Industries, and the junta quickly changed tack. They ceased arrests and, instead, extended migrants’ registration to enable them to stay legally.

“Families take a huge gamble and go into debt to pay [for family members to migrate]. There is a lot of pressure on migration to be ‘successful’,” said Richard Mallett, an Overseas Development Institute (ODI) research fellow and co-author of a 2014 report on migration from Nepal.

Success is often measured in remittances, while the human costs are overlooked. The lack of documentation often means that migrants cannot access lifesaving health care and fear protesting unsafe, even fatal, working conditions.

Labour unions, NGOs, and human rights activists have documented employers in the Gulf states keeping migrants’ passports, essentially rendering them indentured until debts for travel to the host country are repaid.

The UN special rapporteur on migrants, Francois Crépeau, in a statement to the UN General Assembly on 24 October, called on states to minimize the risks of abuse and urged migrants’ inclusion in the SDGs.

Wish list

One problem, according to MMN, is that policies fail to reflect the long-term reality of migration by trying to restrict migrants’ time in a host country.

For example, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Myanmar government and Thailand requires Thailand’s estimated 140,000 Burmese migrants (who fuel the shrimp and construction industries) to leave after four years and return to Myanmar for three years before they can re-apply.

“It wrongly assumes migration is temporary, when the reality is that migrants who learn skills to work in an industry, and their employers, want them to stay,” said Harima.

“The legal migration channel needs to be made cheaper, and more accessible for the workers who want to go abroad, while recruitment agencies are regulated properly,” she added.

In the current draft of the SDGs, the need for safe and orderly migration is stressed and protecting the rights and safe working conditions of all migrants, including migrant workers, is included under Goal 8.

“There is still a lot of horse trading to be done,” said Newland, explaining that the Open Working Group has submitted its recommendations to the panel and now the decision is in the court of states. “The risk is that any inclusion of migration in the SDGs will have to be reduced to the lowest common denominator to gain approval,” she said.


Pacific island women afraid to report domestic violence

Pacific island women afraid to report domestic violence


HONIARA, Solomon Islands, Nov 7 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Not long ago, Mele, a 24-year-old mother, was breastfeeding her six-month-old baby when her husband barged into their Honiara bedroom. He hit her repeatedly across the face with the back of his hand as his two younger brothers wrenched the baby from her arms. When her husband left moments later, Mele had a swollen right eye and cheeks blackened by bruises.

Some version of the story of Mele, who declined to use her real name, replays itself for every two out of three women in the Pacific Islands.

Up to 68 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 49 report routine intimate partner abuse and in some areas 26 percent admit to being beaten while pregnant, according to the latest Family Health and Safety Studies prepared by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community for the Ministry of Women, Youth & Children’s Affairs.

Other forms of violence against women, including rape, gang rape and non-partner physical assault are also common.

“It is an expected part of life, and part of women’s lives, to experience violence. It is a combination of the status of women, a sense of entitlement from men, impunity and lack of access to justice,” Alethia Jimenez, who works in Papua New Guinea on UN Women’s Safe Cities for Women and Girls programme, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The number of laws and protection acts banning violence against women in the Pacific has multiplied in the past few years. Marital rape has been considered a crime in the Solomon Islands since 2012. Samoa passed legislation against sexual offences in 2013, and Tonga and Kiribati introduced family protection laws in 2013. As of May 2013, rapists in Papua New Guinea can face the death penalty.

But fear of payback, where the tribe of an accused person avenges them through further attacks against the claimant, makes survivors even more afraid to report now that there are harsher penalties for perpetrators, experts said.

“People are fearful of reporting someone because the family could take retribution or compensation for reporting that crime,” said Kate Schuetze, Amnesty International’s Pacific researcher.

The entrenched use of traditional justice mechanisms also prevents women from accessing criminal court systems, even in urban areas.


In the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, where up to 80 percent of the population lives in remote rural villages, traditional justice has been in practice for hundreds of years, with village chiefs handling cases of violence against women.

Reliance on informal mechanisms continues even in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands. When a woman is physically or sexually assaulted, the men in her family often beat or threaten the man responsible, rather than report the crime.

“Our father is dead, and we have no brothers, so we think maybe that is why her husband feels he can do this,” said Mary, 28, speaking about her brother-in-law’s abuse of her older sister Mele.

If women act against their abuser on their own, without the support of the men in their family, risk of payback from the abuser’s family is strong, according to advocates.

“Men in the jail are sending word out to other men warning them to make sure their abused wives never make it as far as the shelter,” reported the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank, in an August 2014 report about the situation in Papua New Guinea.

While practitioners say that laws are a first step, traditional justice’s focus on reconciliation fosters impunity since the perpetrator is not socially stigmatized, said Amnesty International’s Schuetze.

“The reality is that there needs to be a dramatic shift in social culture in the country so there is a zero tolerance policy around violence and sexual assault,” she said, noting that only then can civil laws be effective. (Reporting by Dana MacLean, Editing by Lisa Anderson)

Papua New Guinea’s Tragic Witch-Hunts

Papua New Guinea’s Tragic Witch-Hunts

Migrant detention abuse can scar children for life

Migrant detention “abuse” can scar children for life

BANGKOK, 21 October 2014 (IRIN) – An increasing number of migrant children are being detained in countries where they are seeking asylum despite a growing body of scientific evidence that such incarceration leads to long-term psychological and developmental difficulties.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in 2013 declared detaining migrant children is “never in [children’s] best interests and is not justifiable” and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) says it should be conducted with an “ethic of care – and not enforcement”. However, according to a June 2014 article in The Lancet, more than 60 countries detain migrant children, which causes “deleterious effects on children’s mental, developmental, and physical health”.

Photo: Kristy Siegfried/IRIN

So when, in response to a recent surge in migrant children, the US was discovered to be detaining large numbers of migrant children, analysts flayed the tactic. Between October 2013 and September 2014, 68,541 unaccompanied minors were apprehended along the southern border, a 77 percent increase on the previous year; 70 percent reported they were held for more than the legally-allowed 72 hours. Human Rights Watch (HRW) argued: “a wide variety of research studies link immigration detention with mental health consequences for children, including harm that lasts beyond the period of detention.”

And when Australia, home to the notorious Operation Sovereign Borders programme, announced on 19 August 2014 that it would release some migrant children from detention, the plan’s limitations – an arrival cut-off date of 19 July 2013, and age limit of 10 years – drew criticism that the move might, in fact, exacerbate mental health problems. Karen Zwi, a paediatrician and head of the Community Child Health department at Australia’s Sydney Children’s Hospital, said the new release plan “will affect only 16 percent of those currently in locked detention”, arguing it could “heighten the despair of the other 745 (84 percent) children who have been excluded from the release.”

“What we see in children in detention is a huge range of adverse childhood experiences (ACE) for a prolonged period of time,” Zwi told IRIN, referring to ACEs, which the UN World Health Organization (WHO) defines as: “some of the most intensive and frequently occurring sources of stress that children may suffer”, ranging from neglect to violence. “The more of those that you are exposed to, the worse your outcome in adulthood is in terms of physical and mental health,” Zwi said.

Evidence mounting

A 2014 study published in the Medical Journal of Australia found that the majority of a representative sample of the country’s paediatricians “consider mandatory detention a form of child abuse”. Even among the 18 percent of respondents who “strongly approved” of detention of children in general, 92 percent said “detention of asylum-seeker children and their families is a form of child abuse.”

Evidence of the long-term impacts of child abuse is mounting: a 2014statistical analysis by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) found that abuse in childhood, including mental violence inflicted by conditions of detention, can have adverse impacts on educational achievement and personal income, and cause “damage at the societal level, including direct and indirect costs due to increased social spending and lost economic productivity”. For example, a 2013 study estimated the economic cost of child abuse in East Asia and the Pacific to exceed US$160 billion.

“The immigration detention of children and families, represents a grave violation of children’s rights and a serious breach of justice.”

Today there are more forced migrants (51.2 million) than at any point since World War II, according to UNHCR – the majority from Afghanistan, Syria, and Somalia. Half of them are children; at least 25,000 unaccompanied migrant children filed asylum claims in 2013. According to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), global migrants increased from 154 million in 1990 to 232 million in 2013. The International Detention Coalition(IDC) says states are increasingly responding by detaining migrants, and theNGO Coalition on Migration estimates one million migrant children are affected by detention globally.

Exposure to violence

Detained migrant children are exposed to all of the mental strains experienced by adult detainees. “The longer a child is detained, the more likely they will be exposed to… riots, hunger strikes, and self-harm incidents,” explained Oliver White, the head of policy and advocacy for Jesuit Refugee Services-Australia.

In Thailand and Indonesia, HRW documented detained migrant children witnessing fights and guards beating detainees. In Malta, which shoulders a heavy burden as migrants cross the Mediterranean and reach its shores, HRW found that children at immigration detention facilities suffer abuse at the hands of other detainees.

In a 2013 report on Manus Island, one of the off-shore locations where Australia processes asylum seekers who arrive by boat, Amnesty International quotes a service provider at the facility there as saying: “These conditions are contributing to a range of mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, lack of sleep and trauma.” In its 2013 report on Nauru, another Australian off-shore detention centre, UNHCR noted “the deteriorating mental health of children”.

Researchers say the impact of detention can be harsher on children, whose brains, when exposed to multiple negative stressors, can be re-wired with stress responses that last into adulthood. According to Zwi, this is a process of creating “neural pathways”, or tracts in the brain through which information is transported between brain cells.

“Fundamentally the problem is a threatening adverse environment,” Zwi said. “A child with well-developed pathways for fear is more likely to be scared and avoidant, impacting learning and how they face challenges for years after,” echoing UNICEF’s claim that “moderate or severe acts of violence can alter brain development and compromise a child’s potential.”

Others point to the lack of opportunity for recovery from trauma while in detention.

“The natural process is one of recovery but that can only be done in situations of safety and security,” explained Belinda Liddell, a psychologist at the University of New South Wales with the Refugee Trauma and Recovery Programme, which works to “understand the psychological and neurobiological effects of refugee trauma and pathways to recovery”.

A full stop to detention

According to government figures in August, there were 876 migrant children in detention in Australia.

Australia currently runs some psychological counselling programmes for detained immigrants, which Amnesty accused of being insufficiently resourced. However, according to Zwi, “even a lot of psychological help cannot make good the terrible exposure kids are experiencing.”

In February 2014, citing that the number of detained migrant children was higher than during its last study of the issue in 2004, the Australian Human Rights Commission launched a National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention, which is due out by the end of the year.

July 2014 analysis of government data by the Refugee Council of Australiafound that while the total number of migrants in detention had decreased, child asylum seekers were more likely than adults to be detained, and the average length of detention had tripled since September 2013.

The Royal Australasian College of Physicians said in June 2014 that removing children from immigration detention was “the only way to protect their health”.

Refugee campaigners agree, and say the best response is to stop detaining migrant children globally. Alternatives to immigration detention implemented in some countries – including material and legal support – have proven not only more humane, but also cheaper than detention.

“The immigration detention of children and families, represents a grave violation of children’s rights and a serious breach of justice,” stated NGOs, including IDC and Terre des Hommes, at a presentation to the UN Human Rights Council in June 2014.