Corruption and Incapacity Hinder Rights Advocacy

In this fourth installment of her series on refugee advocacy, University of Virginia professor Christine Mahoney draws from her observations in Nepal, Thailand and Colombia, where corruption and lack of capacity prevent effective advocacy.

Written by Christine Mahoney Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Tibetan girls watch a cultural show during celebrations to mark Tibetan New Year, or Losar, inside the Tibetan Refugee Camp in Lalitpur, Nepal. AP/Niranjan Shrestha

Last week I described the first two barriers faced by displaced people and aid organizations when speaking on behalf of the displaced: First, advocacy is not the priority, saving lives is; and second, when aid organizations do try to engage in rights advocacy, the fight for non-priority citizens vis-a-vis national authorities is an uphill battle.

There are at least three more barriers worth mentioning.

Barrier #3 – No Political Leverage

Humanitarian relief groups that try to press for refugees’ freedom to work or freedom to move are doing so with little political leverage. When advocates lobby for a certain policy in democratic systems they usually have two influencing methods: votes and money. Advocates of lobby groups are able to make veiled threats of shaping public opinion and mobilizing votes against a policymaker during the next election cycle. But international NGOs and the U.N. mostly have their arguments and evidence of mistreatment of refugees, or cases of success from other contexts that are worth emulating. Despite NGOs such as Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and human rights advocacy groups like Human Rights Watch collecting evidence over decades, of both successes and failures in refugee policies, their testimonials rarely amount to actions or reactions from governments.

During my fieldwork in the Bhutanese refugee camps in Nepal, I noticed that the governments of Nepal and Bhutan had very little interest in listening to the arguments of aid organizations advocating on behalf of the displaced Lhotshampa people from Bhutan, who are of Nepali ancestry.

The approximately 100,000 Bhutanese refugees lived in stick huts in the floodplain of a river valley in Eastern Nepal. The camps had been there for over 20 years. Entire generations had been born and raised in leaky homes, with mud floors, stick platforms for beds, no windows or doors, no privacy, pit latrines and swarming insects. All of this was made worse by fires, harsh monsoon seasons and cholera outbreaks.

The Nepali government did not allow them to move freely or work. Some of the men worked illegally in India and sent back money, while some of the children crushed stones with their hands along the river and sold the materials to construction companies. A few men also worked illegally in the construction sector in the nearby town. But a vast majority of the adults sat around all day, every day, completely dependent on aid and helpless in shaping their own futures.

Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world, with an annual per capita gross national income of U.S.$490. It also suffered a decade-long civil war and Maoist insurgencies, which claimed 15,000 lives and internally displaced over 100,000 Nepali citizens. Nepal also hosts a Tibetan refugee community of 20,000 – a highly politically sensitive topic for its much larger neighbor China.

It was in this climate that the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and humanitarian aid groups advocated for over a decade for the refugees to be allowed to return home to Bhutan or to integrate locally in Nepal – but to no avail. Bhutan refused to take the refugees back and Nepal refused to allow them to naturalize or provide them with work permits. The refugees were not citizens of Nepal and Nepal had its own developmental challenges. The Bhutanese saw the Lhotshampas as foreign aliens who never belonged in Bhutan. These people were interned in limbo until the countries that had been paying for the camps’ maintenance for decades finally brokered an agreement to resettle 60,000 of the refugees in the U.S. in 2007. It was obvious from this case that the resolution came about as a result of the vested interests of the host parties and not the interests of the refugees themselves.

Barrier #4 – Corrupt Governments and Local Authorities

Not only do aid groups have little political or economic leverage on governments, but they themselves often face pressure from the host governments. In some cases, corrupt government officials of host states extract direct and indirect concessions from aid groups. While some aid workers only alluded to corruption among Kenyan officials at Dadaab camp, which hosts Somali refugees, the aid workers I interviewed in Mae Sot in western Thailand were very explicit about it. Mae Sot is a shanty border town that hosts the field headquarters of the organizations aiding Myanmar’s refugees along the Thai-Myanmar border.

“We have had a lot of trouble with the camp commanders. Especially in the Northern camp. The Palat (Thai word for the camp’s head security guard) there is very demanding. He makes demands on the NGOs and if they aren’t met he tells the security forces not to let us in. So, to do your work you have to meet the demands,” said one.

The workers spoke in detail about how rations from the delivery trucks are “skimmed” at the entrance, where the camp commander had said, “OK that is 10 sacks of rice for me” and unloaded them while the refugees watched. Corruption thrives out in the open.

Barrier #5: Lack of Capacity of Host Governments

An additional barrier that is particularly relevant to the internally displaced populations (IDPs), especially those displaced due to hostilities by rebel groups and not the government, is the lack of capacity.

In these cases the government may have the will and political interest to improve the conditions of the displaced, but lacks the capacity to do so. Advocacy in such situations is often futile and akin to preaching to the converted. Take the case of Colombia. There, advocates are lobbying for the rights of the displaced; the issue is very much a pressing item on the government’s agenda, and there appears to be a political willingness to do something. But after decades of chronic warfare and perpetual instability in remote parts of the country, they simply do not have the capacity to resolve the problem of 4 million displaced and to rehabilitate these tattered communities.

Unemployment is generally high in Colombia, but it is an even greater challenge for displaced populations. When people flee fighting in their rural, agrarian communities and end up in the urban centers, they lack the relevant skills. Further, across the country, the towns and villages receiving IDPs are already impoverished and with meager resources. One aid worker described the local governmental response the following way: “We are trying to collect data but it is very difficult when the municipality does not have enough funds to get their own [local people] health and education.” The local mayors corroborated these claims by saying, “Well, I don’t have enough money for education for all my people, so how can you tell me that I need more money or I must have more money to assist new people in my municipality?”

The past three articles have documented the barriers to effective advocacy at the international, national and local levels. Rights-based advocacy has not, and likely will not, be the pathway to improved conditions for the forcibly displaced. We need a different strategy and my next entry will propose one such long-term solution.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

This is the fourth part of Christine Mahoney’s series of commentaries for Refugees Deeply on the barriers to advocacy for refugees and IDPs (see parts 1 and 2), and on the alternatives based on her field research from 61 displacement crises across the world.

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