Vulnerability and Human rights abuses on IPs increased amidst COVID-19 pandemic

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Hill Voice, 6 August 2020, Dhaka:  During the COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to the loss of jobs, food crisis, lack of adequate relief from the government, entering debt by taking loans, lack of access to proper health facilities, deprivation of indigenous children in online education, there have been increased incidents of human rights violation and land grabbing against indigenous peoples, violence against indigenous women.

This information is found in the research report titled ‘A Rapid Assessment Report: The Impact of COVID-19 on the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples’. The report was published in a virtual discussion on 5 August 2020 Wednesday evening. The assessment was commissioned by the Kapaeeng Foundation, a research organization working on the human rights of indigenous peoples in Bangladesh.

Moderated by Pallab Chakma, Executive Director of Kapaeeng Foundation, the virtual discussion was attended by Professor Dr. Mesbah Kamal, teacher of Dhaka University and Executive Director of Research and Development Collective (RDC); Nirupa Dewan, former member of the National Human Rights Commission; Rabindranath Saran, President of the Jatiya Adivasi Parishad and Chairperson of Kapaeeng Foundation; Partha Shankar Saha, Senior Journalist of national daily ‘Prothom Alo’; Alexius Chicham, National Programme Coordinator of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Programme of ILO in Dhaka; Flora Babli Talang, Joint Convener of Bangladesh Indigenous Women’s Network (BIWN); and Chandra Tripura of Bangladesh Indigenous Cultural Forum. Trimita Chakma, researcher and author of the assessment report presented the findings of the report.

Data and information were collected from 16 indigenous groups living in 14 different district of the country A large part of this report was the impact of COVID-19 on the socio-economic status of indigenous peoples. In the meantime, the human rights situation has been highlighted in one part. According to the report, there have been at least three rape cases in the four months from March to June. Grabbing of indigenous peoples’ land all over the country did not stop even at this critical time. More than 6,000 acres of land belonging to indigenous peoples have been occupied. There have been at least 65 incidents of human rights violations, including arbitrary arrests and house raids.

Impact on Livelihood of indigenous Peoples

Despite the stimulus package to ensure food support to poor and marginalized groups taken by the government to support the low-income and marginalized groups in the country, most indigenous people have reported they received little or no support from these programs.

For instance, in Cox’s Bazar only 2 per cent of the Rakhine community was enlisted in the government ration card system and received relief. Similarly, in Natore, only 10 per cent of the Maal Pahari community received relief. The Hodi and Banai peoples living in Mymensingh and Sherpur, Mushors of Chakla, Dinajpur and the Patra people living Sylhet have received no relief or very little relief.

Due to the COVID-19 shutdown, many community members have lost their jobs. The communities are anxious about their survival during the lockdown as their lives depend on daily wages.

According to the assessment report the activities for agricultural crop production are also hampered due to the imposed restriction on mobility, lack of access to fertilizers and closure of local markets to sell the produce. For example, the Mro community living in Baittapara, Bandarban shifted to mix fruit gardening due to lack of Jum field. Now, due the lockdown, they are now bound to sell their produce at a much lower price but having to buy rice at twice the price.

Due to the sudden lack of income, restriction on movement, and closure of weekly markets, most of the poor indigenous families are faced with food insecurity. For instance, Mushor villagers in Chakla and Khorakhai area in Dinajpur have reported to run out of food stock and are now starving. They are also unable to go fishing in the nearby marsh and water reservoir due to the lockdown.

Out of the desperate situation caused by the COVID19 crisis, many poor indigenous communities are entering debt by taking loans at high interest-rate from local loan sharks.

Most of the Indigenous communities live in remote areas, especially in the CHT region, and do not have access to proper health facilities within their vicinity. While the government is already struggling in the area of healthcare preparedness in combating COVID-19, the remoteness of the Indigenous villages makes them particularly vulnerable in accessing emergency healthcare for not only for treatment of coronavirus but also for other forms of healthcare needs, such as reproductive healthcare needs (e.g. pregnancy) of indigenous women.

After the government declared closure of all educational institutions on 17 March 2020 to curb the pandemic outbreak, the education of the children and youth from disadvantaged communities has been severely disrupted. However, due to the existing digital divide, many children and youth living in remote areas of the CHT are deprived of accessing remote learning initiatives of the government. Many families in the remote areas are struggling to manage food and therefore, TV, smartphone and internet facilities are considered luxury items for the communities.

Intimidation and harassment

Amid the ongoing pandemic crisis, there have been allegations of human rights violations against indigenous leaders and activists in the CHT by the security forces, the police and vigilante groups. The rights violations included cases of harassment, intimidation, arbitrary house searches, attack on religious places of worship, sexual assault, abduction and threats. According to the reports of two leading political parties in CHT, the vigilante groups have abducted at least 29 people from January to May 2020.24 Just within the span of four months from March to June 2020, there were 63 reported incidents of human rights violations in CHT which include extra-judicial killings of 1 persons, arbitrary arrest of 15 persons, detention of 8 persons, physical torture and harassment of 29 persons, and unwarranted searching of 46 houses. There are also allegations that the obstruction by security forces is hindering the locals from accessing medical facilities and aggravating the situation during the time of crisis.

Land grabbing amid Covid-19

Amidst the ongoing crisis of the pandemic, individual land grabbers, private companies and security forces are continuing to occupy territories of indigenous communities throughout the country in the name of conservation and development. According to Kapaeeng Foundation’s recent report, between March and June 2020, at least 6,504 acres of land belonging to indigenous peoples were either occupied or undergoing the process of occupation. In the plains, despite the ongoing COVID 19 crisis, indigenous peoples in Chapainawabgonj were compelled to stage a protest rally against forceful grabbing of their arable land, homes, ponds, graveyards, cremation ground and land belonging to a temple by criminal groups. Similar land grabbing cases were also reported in Sherpur, Sirajgonj, Rajshahi and Dinajpur district. In CHT, In CHT, land grabbing is a regular phenomenon. Different companies, agencies and even influential individuals are grabbing land with direct and indirect support of the local administration.

Within the assessment period (March to June 2020), there are several incidents of attacks on the land owners and destroying agricultural garden belonging to indigenous peoples. There are allegations that security forces are setting up their establishments on indigenous territories without their free prior informed consent (FPIC). As a result of the ongoing land grabbing processes many indigenous families are living under the threat of eviction from their ancestral territories.

Violence against indigenous women and girls

Violence against indingenous women and girls remain rampant despite the pandemic outbreak and the lockdown. A total of 14 cases of violence against indigenous women, including rape, abduction, muder and physical attack were reported from January 2020 to June 2020. Out of 14 such cases, 10 were reported in the plains and the rest 4 in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT).

Conclusion and Recommendation

Indigenous Peoples of Bangladesh are among those who are highly vulnerable to COVID-19 because of several socio-economic factors. Therefore, the COVID-19 lockdown is disproportionately impacting the economic situation of the Indigenous population, who have already been suffering from severe poverty and further exacerbating the poverty rate as they lose their livelihoods and enter debts.

The Government of Bangladesh has continuously failed to provide social protection to its indigenous population. With regards to implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Bangladesh has been following a “whole of the society” approach, which is failing to address the specialized needs of the marginalized indigenous population.

In particular, the government of Bangladesh needs to put forth some unique local responses to the impact of the COVID-19 crisis to address the needs of the vulnerable indigenous communities at the face of a severe food crisis.

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