Capturing a Crisis: What lessons can we learn from the “overdocumentation” of the Rohingya crisis?

Eva Buzo joins JiC for this guest post on the documentation of human rights abuses and atrocities committed against the Rohingya people. Eva is an Australian lawyer, and the Executive Director of Victim Advocates International. She lived in Cox’s Bazar between November 2017 and September 2019.

A Rohingya refugee camp in Cox Bazar, Bangladesh (Photo: RedR Australia)

The term ‘overdocumentation’ is frequently associated with the situation facing the Rohingya. As a humanitarian crisis that took place in a relatively accessible area to civil society and governmental organizations, groups from all over the world came to document the gross human rights violations that had occurred in northern Rakhine state and that led to the exodus of over 700,000 people from Myanmar to Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. This process of documentation occurred almost in real-time, as a steady stream of new arrivals into the camps in Bangladesh brought new stories of horror from events that were still unfolding.

But overdocumentation is not an accurate description of what happened. Today, a careful review of the masses of information gathered in 2017 and 2018 reveals gaps in the story. A victim interviewed by the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights recounts,

‘When we were fleeing, we stayed in Ba Da Nar overnight. The town was empty and full of bodies.’

When Ba Da Nar is cross-referenced against the wealth of existing reports on crimes committed against Rohingya, there are no matches. In this supposed crisis of overdocumentation, how is it possible to find nothing about a town that was apparently was wiped out?

Commentary and discussions dedicated to gaps in the documentation of the Rohingya crisis have thus far focused on the form of the material collected, and the distinction between “human rights documentation” versus the collection of “evidence” for use in international criminal prosecution. However, when it comes to the Rohingya, there was a far more fundamental problem at play – the lack of coordination of evidence / documentation efforts.

In the scramble to piece together the scope and scale of the clearance operations against the Rohingya, the numerous groups who came to Cox’s Bazar neither coordinated in any meaningful sense, nor benefitted from each other’s knowledge. Unsurprisingly, this has led to significant duplication on one hand, and large gaps in the narrative of what happened in northern Rakhine state on the other. The fact that these gaps exist would certainly seem to weaken the position adopted by Myanmar’s in the December 2019 provisional measures hearing before the International Court of Justice that the number of 10,000 deaths was an “exaggeration” and could not constitute an attempt to destroy the Rohingya ethnic group. Regardless, effective documentation processes are important. The purpose of this article is to suggest why these gaps exist in relation to the Rohingya, and to suggest a path to a more effective and complete process in future situations of humanitarian crisis.

The Problem

The scene in Cox’s Bazar following the clearance operations of August 2017 was a crowded one. As the Rohingya fled across the border from Myanmar at a rate of up to 9,000 people per day, they were settled across 30 camps located between Kutapalong and Teknaf, 55 kilometres south. Almost 600,000 refugees, two-thirds of the total population in Bangladesh, were settled in “megacamp” in Kutapalong, the world’s most densely populated refugee camp. The camps are a labyrinth, with some inhabitants reporting that they were too afraid to leave their shelters in case they got lost and couldn’t find their way back.

In this environment, groups came to the camps to investigate and document the alleged atrocities on short-term missions that invariably lasted between 7 and 14 days. A quick scan of the “Methodology” section of some of the reports show that groups were often conducting between three and five interviews each day. These short-term “parachute” missions which aim to obtain as much information as possible as quickly as possible, seem to have been the only model used by the teams. This model gave rise to a series problems.

A) A small pool of “fixers”

Parachute missions don’t allow sufficient time for investigators to learn the lay of the land; they must hit the ground and start interviewing. To do this, they rely on “fixers”; people from within the affected community who connect alleged victims and investigators, and often act as translators.

It is a marked feature of the early reports on the Rohingya crisis that they discuss events in the same three to five areas. This is a result of the early groups using fixers drawn from the same small pool. Some of these fixers advertised their services on Twitter, others would wait at the airport at Cox’s Bazar and approach foreigners arriving and offer their services. For a daily fee of between $100-200, they would accompany the teams and take them to speak to victims.

A popular location was Camp 13, known locally as Thangkhali, where many former residents of Chut Pyin village had settled. Camp 13 is also home to what is known as ‘widows lane’, where investigators can go door-to-door and speak to sexual violence survivors. Groups operating within a tight deadline, needing to record maximum impact stories could go to Thangkhali, not too far beyond Kutapalong, and conduct numerous interviews per day with victims of sexual violence.

The fixers also designated particular victims as being ‘high impact’. Nosima (not her real name) was one of those. Nosima watched as 9 of her family members, including her sons and her husband, were slaughtered at Monu Para. By March 2018, Nosima had been interviewed 19 times, although she did not know by whom. She did not know how to contact her interviewers, who they worked for, or what they were doing with her information.

The fixers who guided the interviews of the groups who first came to Cox’s Bazar, while undeniably motivated by the imperative of documenting the horrific crimes suffered by their communities and families, had little ability to distinguish between different actors, or know that a Masters student writing a dissertation would be unlikely to create a publication of the same impact or credibility as that released by the UN International Independent Fact Finding Mission (FFM). Without a triage system, the entry points facilitated by the fixers were well-trodden by the time the higher-impact actors arrived.

When the time came for Nosima to complete the paperwork to facilitate her legal representation as a victim in proceedings for the International Criminal Court (ICC), she was so exhausted from telling her story that she indicated she would only now do so for a fee. Rather than seeing this as an opportunity to be represented in a process where she could be actively engaged and recognised, for Nosima, it was just another interview.

B) Humanitarian Services

A second problem was that groups entering the camps to document the crisis were often unaware of the significance of “entry points”. Groups arriving in the camp often used humanitarian facilities such as Women Friendly Spaces or Community Centres as their entry points to meeting victims and interview the people they found there.

However, this reliance on humanitarian services meant that groups only had access to those victims that were already “in” a service and therefore were likely to have already been “documented” either by the service or by previous investigators. Aside for the risk of re-traumatisation, the other consequence was that victims who could not easily access humanitarian assistance – like male survivors of sexual violence and the Hijra (transgender) community – were left out of the story.

It has also emerged that the rate of reporting sexual violence to humanitarian or medical services among the Rohingya community is extremely low. Victims of sexual violence regularly refuse medical referrals, even those reporting or exhibiting serious or chronic injuries. Consequently, extrapolating from medical services the types and extent of violations that occurred should not be relied upon for any information other than service usage.

c)      Rohingya Civil Society Groups

A third problem is the light which many cast upon the documentation done by Rohingya civil society groups themselves. While the Rohingya within these groups are not trained investigators, this did not set them apart from many of the groups who travelled to Cox’s Bazar in 2017 and 2018 to document atrocities. However, a key advantage of these Rohingya civil society groups is that the victim can later contact the people with whom they shared their complaint and vice versa. They can maintain contact, have conversations about consent, and ongoing consultations about use of the information collected, a significant challenge for outside investigators. Even now among the current COVID restrictions, civil society groups are consistently able to locate complainants in their records almost immediately. Early investment in supporting these groups to collect complaints which can then be verified can help to streamline documentation efforts and create new and varied entry points for investigations.

The Solution: A Coordination Structure

If groups of investigators use the same entry points, then they will invariably produce the same outcome. The simple solution to the documentation problem is to implement an overarching coordination structure to manage the process. The humanitarian coordination system could serve as a model for the coordination of documentation.  A successful coordination system would ensure that groups were not all carrying out documentation in Camp 1 while victims in Camp 32 had never had the chance to tell their story. There is a reason why Women Friendly Spaces (WFS) are located in all the different camps. Namely, you cannot build a WFS unless you get permission from the coordination system.

In addition to this, a coordination system would ensure that documentation activities are more easily integrated into existing case management procedures. In Cox’s Bazar, case management forms exist. A victim of sexual violence being interviewed is likely to either disclose or exhibit both health and psychosocial issues. Giving this victim the location of the nearest WFS at the conclusion of the interview is not going to achieve much. Moreover, without a referral form, the victim will have to re-tell her story to the WFS team members. Documenters should be required to carry case management forms, and make use of the referral system.

Finally, a coordinated system would also make it easier for victims to identify who has their story. People like Nosima could reach out to a centralised system to find out which group did documentation in her camp. This would also make it easier for investigators to re-establish contact with victims later down the track if they need to obtain consent to share the information with accountability mechanisms.

With 1.1 million refugees living in Cox’s Bazar, the sheer size of the Rohingya crisis means no actor can effectively document the situation alone. The scarce resources available in this space means that we all need to work as efficiently as possible, coordinating with one another to fill the gaps which still remain in the narrative in a manner which is not only effective, but which prioritises the interests of the affected community itself. For this, and future crises, a coordinated approach is the key to ensuring those pursuing accountability on behalf of victims have access to the most relevant, probative, reliable and complete evidentiary matrixes as possible. For the Rohingya, these crimes are their lived reality. Their record must be complete and immutable.

About Mark Kersten

Mark Kersten is a consultant at the Wayamo Foundation, a Senior Researcher at the Munk School of Global Affairs, and a law student at McGill University Law School. He is also author of the book, 'Justice in Conflict - The Effects of the International Criminal Court's Interventions on Ending Wars and Building Peace' (Oxford University Press, 2016).
This entry was posted in Bangladesh, Burma/Myanmar, Guest Posts, Investigations, Rohingya. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Capturing a Crisis: What lessons can we learn from the “overdocumentation” of the Rohingya crisis?

  1. El roam says:

    Interesting and important post. It is not understood here. Why, notwithstanding coordination, to interview them, over and over, and reviving traumas in victims ? It can be done, by forming site in cloud ( internet site) and uploading the information or interviews. Once for all. With the consent of the victims, one may even take video shots or filming the interview, upload documents and so forth…All is needed, is to subscribe, register, secure the site, access is given by codes, passwords and so forth… Once for all. No coordination even is needed here. Simple retrieval is needed, that’s it.

    Thanks

  2. Pingback: “Capturing a Crisis: What lessons can we learn from the “overdocumentation” of the Rohingya crisis? – Eva Buzo – Victim Advocates International

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