Ogonna Kanu

Ogonna’s postgraduate thesis on unarmed civilian peacekeeping ignited her interest in FCVs (fragile, conflict and violence affected areas) and the global refugee crisis. Before then, she had for many years volunteered – and still continues to volunteer her skills and time to causes and NGOs that align with her values; and remains an avid supporter of interventions in the social development sector. This UMR volunteer blog role provides an exciting opportunity to write about issues she cares about and also broaden her knowledge of the humanitarian/development sector. At the same time, she is able to bring much needed attention to the plight of vulnerable persons and undeserved communities. She holds a Master’s Degree in Public and International Affairs from the University of Lagos in Nigeria.

Unaccompanied Minors: A Childhood Interrupted

By Ogonna Kanu

The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) defines a child as every human being below the age of 18 years. Since children belong in families and are to be cared for till they attain a certain age, parents or guardians will naturally make decisions that consider the wellbeing of the child.

When families decide to relocate from one place to another, the expectation is that parents move with their children; and that minors will not make decisions to migrate or undertake such journeys alone. Contrary to this assumption, there are now more children than ever before who flee or find themselves without adults to chaperone them. These children can be categorized as either unaccompanied minors or separated children. Unaccompanied children are those who are without both parents, not being cared for by relatives or adults, who by law or custom, are responsible for doing so. Separated children are those who have been separated from both parents or from previous legal or customary primary caregiver but not necessarily from other relatives.

There are different reasons why children migrate alone. They could be fleeing persecution or victims of natural disasters, displacement, conflict, gang violence or conscription into rebel armies. Sometimes, it is the flight process that separates children from parents or older relatives. Losing the protection of their families or relatives in such a turmoil makes their story even more pathetic because it is at such times that they need their families the most. There have been instances where parents have made the grim decision to send their children alone with the hope of ensuring their survival. In other instances, the parents have gone on ahead and regularized their stay in other countries by seeking asylum before making arrangements – sometimes very risky arrangements, for the children to join them through the ‘unaccompanied minors’ route.

Discussions on the rights and protection of unaccompanied or separated children (UASC) have become necessary because of the increase in their numbers. There are 35 million children below the age of 18 who are refugees. Thousands amongst these children arrive in a country either on their own or with relatives who are not their parents. A UNHCR report estimates that there are presently 153,300 unaccompanied minors and separated children in the world. 

It is nearly impossible for a child to face the world alone and remain the same. The interruption of childhood compels them to assume adult responsibilities. Older children become caregivers, protectors and providers to their younger siblings. Oftentimes they do the unimaginable to survive; and are more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Journeying alone in itself is deemed to be physically and psychologically tiring and exposes them to physical violence, rape, manipulation and human trafficking. Girls are at a greater risk of sexual and gender based violence. Police or immigration officials who should protect these children may take advantage of them. Access to adequate medical services; education; official or proper identification, documentation and registration of their refugee status is not guaranteed.

There is not much consideration given to their needs as children. Some are housed in detention facilities in inhumane conditions with adults they do not know. Children in such facilities suffer physical, emotional and psychological trauma, particularly if they stay there for a long time. There are situations where the children are unable to seek asylum or denied asylum and have been returned to the countries they took flight from. Their asylum requests may also not be handled in an age-appropriate or gender sensitive manner.

In recent times, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled on the unlawfulness of the widespread detention of migrant children in EU states. Human rights organizations have also been quick to point out that under international law, children should not be detained. UNICEF and UNHCR insist that a best interest analysis (BIA) takes place before a decision to detain a child. It should identify the actions to be taken in the child’s best interest. Detention may only be given careful thought if the child can be placed where their physical and mental needs are addressed and their age and gender are given optimal consideration. UNHCR also advocates child-appropriate alternatives to detention such as connecting children with relatives in the country of asylum, making use of foster care systems or residential quarters. Pilot initiatives, such as Greece’s supervised independent living, Italy’s guardianship programme and Germany’s protection co-ordinators initiative are being pushed as projects that have not only benefited from the direct input of children but have made a positive impact in the fight  to improve the lot of migrant  children. 

The issues faced by unaccompanied children have prompted people everywhere to speak out. People are making an effort to learn more about migration issues and are speaking against governments and policies that add more trauma to the lives of these children. Educating others and encouraging them to lend their own voices to this cause; and joining local NGOs to donate time, money or skills has proved effective in creating more awareness and providing some succor to the children.

Hopefully, with increased effort to tackle this catastrophe, the conditions unaccompanied minors and separated children find themselves presently will very soon be a thing of the past.

Attempting to Understand the Rohingya Crisis

by Ogonna Kanu

When you hear a group of persons repeatedly described as the most persecuted minorities in the world, it piques your curiosity and makes you wonder why. My research on the Rohingya prompted me to write about them because I was moved by their predicament. This article attempts to throw more light on the current state of the Rohingyas and the origins of their plight.

The Rohingya are a minority muslim ethnic group predominantly found in the Rakhine state of Myanmar. Very few of them are practicing Buddhists. They generally speak the Rohingya dialect but may also speak English, Bangla, Burmese and Chittagonian. They traditionally dress in the Indo-Burmese way of dressing; and music and song play an important part in their culture.

The genesis of the Rohingya crisis dates back to the 1940s when Myanmar (formerly Burma) got its independence from the British who held sway from 1824 till then. Motivated by the policies of the British, many Rohingya migrated to Myanmar in search of greener pastures. Often recruited in the rice fields, their population grew. The Muslim population was reported to have tripled in the 1870s because of such migrant activities. The British promised the Rohingya their own separate land if they supported them. It was a promise they didn’t intend to keep. While the Rohingya sided with the British during World War II, the Myanmar nationalists were on the Japanese side. At the end of the war, their reward was prestigious government positions, but no land.

With the fall of colonialism in 1948, the Rohingya continued to demand for an autonomous state but their association with the British had bred resentment towards them. The Nationalist government and the mainly Buddhist population regarded them as foreigners who had enjoyed the perks of colonial rule and would hear nothing of such demands. In 1950, the army quashed a Rohingya revolt demanding for an autonomous state. Since then, a series of attacks have forced them to flee to Bangladesh, Malaysia, India, Thailand and Indonesia. A greater percentage of the Rohingya are refugees in Bangladesh. The 700,000 who recently fled in 2017 joined others who had earlier fled. They found homes in the Kuputalong Camp (in Cox’s Bazar district)in Bangladesh. With their ‘relocation’, Kuputalong became the biggest refugee camp in the world, housing over 880,000 Rohingya refugees. 

In 1982, the Citizenship Act of Myanmar was enacted. The Act considers as citizens only those whose ancestors belonged to a national group or race present in Myanmar before the British rule of the 1820s. However, a census conducted by the British prior to 1820 when they occupied the Rakhine territory confirms the presence of an indigeneous ethnic group ‘Rooinga’. Some claims assert that the Rohingyas had lived in the Rakhine state of Myanmar as far back as the 12th century. Myanmar has not considered any of these claims and has consistently denied the Rohingyas citizenship. They are instead viewed as illegal immigrants or at best ‘resident foreigners’. Bangladesh, where a lot of the Rohingyas have had to flee to, do not consider them as citizens either. As such, the Rohingyas are stateless and are deprived of the protection of any government. Rohingya children born outside Myanmar (Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia etc) are not considered citizens of these countries. For those that choose to stay behind in Myanmar, they suffer a deprivation of benefits and are subject to restrictions. They do not enjoy quality healthcare, education or employment. In a bid to reduce their population, there are government restrictions on the number of children they should have. They are allowed to have only 2 children. They are required to seek permission to marry. This process involves presenting the photo of the bride without a headscarf and a clean-shaven faced groom. Both practices do not agree with Muslim customs. They also need permission to move or travel out.

While the news of fleeing Rohingya refugees may have caught world attention briefly in 2017, it was the television scenes of the March 2021 fires destroying countless refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar that jolted the world’s conscience back to the Rohingya crisis. Before then, Cox’s Bazar was largely known to only the humanitarian community.  They had for years been grappling with the weight of this catastrophe begging for urgent attention. There are claims that the refugees had started making their way to Bangladesh as far back as the 1940s. Some documented reports show that they had started to arrive in Bangladesh for succor in 1977 when Myanmar launched ‘Operation Dragon King’ which stripped the Rohingya of their citizenship status and led to mass arrests and persecution of the group. There is also pictorial evidence showing refugees settling in Dumdumia Camp in Cox’s Bazar in 1992. In 2017, reprisal attacks from the Myanmar army and indignant Buddhist indigenes of the Rakhine state forced an estimated 700,000 Rohingya refugees to seek refuge in the town. Earlier on, a group of Rohingya insurgents attacked police posts  with knives and home-made bombs, killing 12 members of the security forces in the process. The Myanmar army and the locals unleashed vengeance on Rohingya homes and property. Rape, sexual slavery, torture, kidnappings and killing of civilians were reported. Unverified reports claim that over 1,000 Rohingyas lost their lives in the 2017 fracas. Others who barely managed to survive joined in the mass exodus to Cox’s Bazar.

In 2018, Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a repatriation agreement. Rohingya refugees were not eager to return to Myanmar. They were skeptical of receiving a warm welcome from people they once regarded as neighbors. Rohingya leaders were not convinced of the sincerity of the process; and demanded for safety upon their return to the Rakhine state and the reinstatement of citizenship be addressed, before any consideration would be given to repatriation. On the other hand, the  unfounded fear held by Myanmar that the Rohingyas could turn rebellious and solicit support from neighboring Islamic countries to overrun the Buddhist country was still rife. With the Myanmar government refusing to let down its guard, there was no surprise that the repatriation agreement had very little, if at all any, success. The January 2021 coup in Myanmar slowed down the resuscitation of repatriation talks. Both governments have only begun talking again in February this year. 

Presently, fires are not the only obstacles the Rohingyas who have managed to flee Myanmar are faced with. Bangladesh struggles with inadequate resources to cater to the needs of the refugees. The camps are overpopulated and poor sanitary conditions abound. The risk of an outbreak of disease is always high and poor medical facilities exacerbate the danger. Available water supply is often contaminated and encourages the spread of water-borne diseases. Floods also contribute to the rendering of refugees homeless again.  Most of the population is illiterate. Children do not have access to basic education as teachers are barred from using both the Bangladeshi and Myanmar curricula; and children are not allowed to enroll in schools outside the camp. Camp occupants are barred from working outside the camp. In 2019, the Bangladeshi government sped up the construction of shelters on the remote island of Basan Char. Since then, approximately 20,000 Rohingya refugees have been moved without their consent to the Island where they are not allowed to leave and are restricted from communicating with the UN and other organizations. Cases of refugees rescued at sea and being shipped off to the Island instead of being re-united with their families in Cox’s Bazar have been on the increase. The outcry and concerns about the safety of the Island and accessibility from humanitarians have gone unheeded by the government. Amidst criticism of Bangladesh’s handling of the crisis, it is only honest and fair to admit that there was a time when Bangladesh was the only country that accepted the refugees when others had turned their backs on them.

Repatriation seems to be a step in the right direction. However, If underlying issues are sorted out and the Rohingyas finally agree to come home, there may not be much left to come home to. Villages have reportedly been razed down and cleared to accommodate the construction of police barracks, buildings and refugee camps. Clearly, they will not be returning to the security of having homes and lands to call their own. The 2021 military takeover of the Myanmar government puts the Rohingya in a precarious situation. The army has always been involved in the state-endorsed persecution of the group. With the military at the helm of affairs, the group has legitimate reasons to fear that repatriation agreements may be disregarded in favor of military promulgations.  Prejudices and biases do not suddenly die away because of government pronouncements.  Assuming that the Myanmar government magnanimously enacts a law to protect the rights of the Rohingyas, there has to be effective measures in place to ensure that citizens obey the law. Dialogue between the Rohingyas, their Buddhist neighbors and the Myanmar government may help to allay some fears and build some trust amongst all parties.  Will the government consider treading cautiously and tackling bravely the concerns of the Rohingyas in order to win their trust?

Clearly, options for the Rohingyas today are limited.  They can either choose to embrace the uncertainty and hardship of refugee life or stay at ‘home’ in their comfort zone and remain oppressed. I sincerely wish that the story will not be the same in a year or two from now.

Factorem Humanis – The Human Factor

by Ogonna Kanu

I was in a dilemma. Here I was, passionate about making the world a better place, of course, in my own little way and not being able to explain to my niece what being humanitarian meant.

“So who is a humanitarian?” she quipped. Maybe it was my lack of self-confidence that made me break out in barely visible sweat. Maybe that was also what made me imagine a smirk on that five year old’s face. ‘’Well..er..’’ I began before I was saved by her mother’s interjection. ‘’Time for bed, young lady!’’

Issie’s question got me thinking hard. Who really is a humanitarian? People who dedicate themselves to making life a little more bearable for others, particularly those plagued by misfortune, are typically called humanitarians. They lend their voices in the fight or mission to curb violence, abuse, poverty, disease, hunger, discrimination, injustice, persecution, oppression and any other reprehensible act. Humanitarians are open to lending their skills and knowledge to causes in every nook and cranny of the globe and with the advent of technology, they may do so from the comfort of their homes!

The beauty of the humanitarian field is that the key criteria for getting a leg in is simply being human. Degrees are good, networking is good, but being human trumps them all. I like to call this ‘’the human factor’’. Only human beings can empathize and every human being can! Empathy is the main ingredient of humanitarianism. Empathy propels human beings into action. It is this empathy that leads us to give and it is in this giving that we make other people’s lives better and our societies sane. 

Can we imagine a world where no one does anything for another? Is that even possible? I like to think being humanitarian comes natural for you and me. Some people, though, are braver and more determined in this quest to touch lives. They leave all that is familiar and launch out into the unknown for weeks and years; they learn new languages, new cultures just so as to be able to give of themselves to strangers who may never really regard them warmly as friends. Resolute in their goal to bring the plight of the marginalized to the attention of the international community, they campaign and advocate for justice and for change. They are at the forefront of projects and initiatives that strategize on how to provide unique solutions to problems in diverse communities. They are almost always at the mercy of terrorists, wars and other natural and man-made disasters, but still, they do what they do wholeheartedly.  

What has made them more ‘’human’’ than other humans?  I have asked myself this question severally and have always met my own silence intertwined with a deep awe. In my opinion, these are the ones that deserve our admiration and applause; and the ones we should emulate. And if we emulate them? The universe guarantees us that ripples of our kindness will reach much further than we thought and outlive us. 

So the next time my niece asks what makes someone a humanitarian, I have my answer ready for her! I will confidently tell her that to be a humanitarian, you don’t have to be extraordinary. You just have to be a human being who sees and feels the pain of others – and do your own bit to make them smile, even if only for a while.

Travails of Elderly Displaced Persons

Whenever displacement is discussed, statistics indicate the numbers and magnitude of the crisis. Reports state that at the end of 2020, there were 82.4 million forcibly displaced persons in the world. The UNHCR Global Trend Report, published in June this year, recognized that there were between 30 – 34 million forcibly displaced children globally in 2019. In 2018, 21 million women and children were recognized as being internally displaced globally.

Displacement demographics often highlight the impact on women and children. Ample research points to the fact that they suffer the most in any humanitarian crisis. However, the lack of information on older displaced persons is somewhat concerning. It requires painstaking research to gather information on this particular group of persons. One might be forced to draw the conclusion that there are no elderly displaced persons or that if there are, there are so few that overlooking them would cause no significant impact on displacement statistics. This article aims to call attention to the existence of older displaced persons and problems they face. 

Perhaps, the UNHCR’s categorization of the older generation of displaced persons with the extremely traumatized, the chronically ill and persons with disabilities as ‘’persons with special needs’’ was to draw attention to the issues these set of displaced persons suffer but this grouping may have only succeeded in doing the opposite. Elderly displaced persons were unintentionally forced to give up their identity as a distinct group with their own peculiar issues and needs; and got lost within the larger identified special persons group. The lack of evidence showing any marginal improvement in the welfare of older persons buttresses this point. 

Research is replete with reports of a re-occurrence of the disregard of their basic human rights; their needs not being considered nor met; and not being consulted in issues concerning  their own welfare. Sadly, it is often only in the process of repatriation or resettlement that older persons become visible.

In recent times, there are more than enough stories of elderly persons who make the decision to stay on in conflict zones or even families who take the painful and difficult decisions to leave their elderly behind in order to take a chance on being safe themselves. The women in particular take on the role of caregivers to orphaned or unaccompanied minors in IDP camps and lose the psychosocial benefits derived from these roles when such minors are resettled or repatriated. Examples include the sense of belonging to a family, particularly, if they are without their own immediate family; the acknowledgement of their roles as counsellors and support systems;  and the recognition and respect accorded them as contributors to the development of the society.

The sudden loss of a safe abode can be life-shattering for young able bodied persons, however this trauma is often multiplied when it concerns the elderly. In situations where flight becomes necessary, older persons are greatly disadvantaged. What psychological impact does being forced to give up one’s home at retirement age cause? What becomes of the roles they played in their communities and the social status or sense of fulfilment these roles provided them? How can the health and nutritional concerns associated with old age be met in such challenging situations? If they are strong enough to flee, for how long can they move from one place to another unaided? What happens to the dreams they had? Is there hope on the horizon for the elderly displaced? 

Reports indicate that attempts have been made to resolve some of the problems they encounter. Listed below are some potential solutions suggested by the UN:

  • Ensure there is identification, registration and an assessment of elderly persons’ needs.
  • An immediate response to their needs and provision of day-to-day care.
  • Ensure that partners, local and national authorities are aware of their needs and how to provide for them.
  • The needs of elderly displaced persons should be considered at the start of any emergency situation.
  • Design appropriate systems to detect, respond and prevent violence and abuse.
  • Create programs that include older persons and make sure that they are kept informed of such programs.
  • Design structures that disallow for the discrimination of older IDPs who are willing and able to work.

Acknowledging the many problems that elderly IDPs face is the first step towards working towards a better future. However, for now elderly displaced persons must continue to live with the hope of a better tomorrow.

*For the purpose of this article, elderly persons have been identified as persons 60 years and older.

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