The Suffering of the Rohingya

Smoke and flames in Myanmar are seen from the Bangladeshi side of the border near Cox’s Bazar, Sept. 3, 2017. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

Two recent videos caught my eye, one from Al Jazeera, the other via the New York Times. They both pertain to the massive number of Rohingya refugees forcibly displaced from Myanmar into Bangladesh, in what the United Nations is calling “ethnic cleansing.” There are many reports of deliberate targeting of Rohingya Muslims by the largely Buddhist Myanmar military, police, and militias.

 

However, only a few voices have been willing to call this a “genocide,” in part because the charge is so serious and the burden of proof is onerous. According to Dr. Azeem Ibrahim, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Policy, this reluctance may stem in part from a mental image that a genocide requires “one huge act of frenzied violence,” rather than a steady, slow drip of purging. Another factor may be because of legal obligations required to counteract such atrocities once genocide is declared. For example, the U.S. was hesitant to declare the events in Rwanda and Darfur a genocide partly because a finding of genocide might have required the Clinton and Bush administrations “to actually ‘do something.'”

Images from satellites and on the ground confirm that hundreds of Rohingya villages have been burned to the ground in a scorched earth campaign, as a deliberate strategy to deny the Rohingya a home to return to after they are expelled. Refugees have reported that soldiers have killed villagers, gang-raped women, even thrown babies into fires, burning them alive. Despite denials from the Myanmar government, the refugees’ reports seem consistent, corroborating each other. In the video below from the New York Times, the reporter says that “It seems like everyone in the camp has a horror story to tell.

 

Among the survivors, the suffering is not likely to go away any time soon. The distribution of food seems inadequate, overwhelmed by the numbers of refugees. As a form of therapy, children in camps are drawing some of their traumatic experiences in order to cope with them. Several depict soldiers killing civilians and burning houses. 

In a 2009 study of 1,500+ elderly Germans, Philip Kuwert and colleagues found that even after 60 years had passed, people who were forcibly displaced as children during WWII were significantly more likely to suffer from current anxiety, lower life satisfaction, and lower resilience (Kuwert et al 2009). Whether this pattern will recur in the Rohingya is to be seen. There is also a possibility for post-traumatic growth, where individuals can experience positive changes “as a result of the struggle with a major life crisis or a traumatic event.”

But it seems clear that the Rohingya at least face the potential for a multi-generational trauma. If a high-income nation like Germany, with all of its resources, can be still be affected six decades later, then how much higher are the odds for that same effect in the Rohingya now living in Bangladesh, as well as those who stayed behind in Myanmar. This suggests the need for the world to pay more attention to the plight of the Rohingya to prevent more suffering from occurring.

 

Reference

Kuwert P, Brähler E, Glaesmer H, Freyberger HJ, Decker O. (2009) Impact of forced displacement during World War II on the present-day mental health of the elderly: a population-based study. Int Psychogeriatr. 2009 21(4):748-53. Link

A (R)evolution of Tenderness

“Compassion is more important than intellect, in calling forth the love that the work of peace needs, and intuition can often be a far more powerful searchlight than cold reason. We have to think, and think hard, but if we do not have compassion before we even start thinking, then we are quite likely to start fighting over theories. The whole world is divided ideologically, and theologically, right and left, and men are prepared to fight over their ideological differences. Yet the whole human family can be united by compassion. And, as Ciaran (McKeown, co-founder of the Movement of the Peace People in Northern Ireland) said recently in Israel, “compassion recognises human rights automatically; it does not need a charter.”

Betty Williams’ Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Dec 1977

 

 

As a college professor, I have some “radical” opinions. For one, I would like to see war and suffering decrease in my lifetime, if not my kids’ lifetimes. I am confident that while war may sometimes be necessary, it does more harm than good, and I am also confident that those negative effects can last for generations. At the same time, I also value truth very much, and I try to avoid naïve interpretations of human biology and behavior. Instead, I try to take a nuanced view when it comes to things like the roots of war, nature/ nurture, and even human sexuality. With all of that said, I’m going to try to splice together a few recent threads to find some reasons for optimism, despite the way current events seem to be going around the world. 

Things are certainly not great. By the end of 2016, an estimated 65.6 million people had been forcibly displaced by conflict, the highest number ever recorded. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi lamented that “the world seems to have become unable to make peace.” Partly as a result of conflict, 20 million people are at risk for starvation in four countries: Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and northeast Nigeria.

The Peace Research Institute in Oslo (PRIO) issued a brief report this month, summarizing the state of global conflicts from 1946 to 2016. In all, the number of conflicts declined from 52 in 2015 to 49 last year, while the total number of battle casualties also fell 14%. This is a tiny bit of good news, although one can see in the figure below that there has been an uptick in all conflicts since 2011, and a long-term increase since the early 1960s. [It is debatable why we should start the clock at 1946, just after the deadliest period of human history, but c’est la vie.] 

From PRIO

By comparison, battle casualties per capita have generally decreased since 1946. While the number of conflicts have gone up, they have been primarily intrastate ones, and smaller in scale. A word of caution, however: “battle casualties” is a metric that looks at violent deaths only. It does not include indirect deaths due to things like broken infrastructure, such as lack of electricity, food/water, and health care that accompany war. If those numbers were included, the number of deaths surely would be higher. And, while the number of conflicts is a tally, battle deaths per capita is a rate, so the two aren’t directly comparable. The total number of deaths might present a different perspective, as might the rate per capita of people who were forcibly displaced.

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U.S. Attitudes Toward Refugees

Generally speaking, U.S. attitudes toward the idea of accepting refugees have not been very generous over time.

From Drew DeSilver at the Pew Research Center:

Pew Poll

And from Jeffrey Jones at Gallup:

Gallup.png

 

Growth of Recently Arrived Refugee Children in the U.S.

A recent paper in the journal PLoS One examined growth patterns of 982 refugee children (age 0-10 yrs) from 35 countries who were resettled in the state of Washington (Dawson-Hahn et al 2016). Using height and weight measured at the time of their overseas health examination, the authors calculated rates of stunting (low height-for-age), wasting (low weight-for-height), and overweight/obesity as markers of a child’s nutritional status. These statistics were also compared to low-income children in Washington.

To me, the most important part of the results was that rates of substandard growth were quite high among refugees. Overall, refugee children aged 0-5 years old were more likely to be wasted and stunted, and less likely to be obese in comparison to low-income children in Washington.

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Figure 1 from Dawson-Hahn et al

 

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“Love Will Win”

 

Refugeee Love

A young refugee couple kiss in a tent in Keleti station in Budapest, Hungary. Photograph: Istvan Zsiros. Source

From the article in The Guardian:

 “I hope every refugee finds a their place in the world, finds peace as quickly as possible,” (photographer) Istvan Zsiros says. “That everyone is happy. It’s a very difficult situation, a very complex situation.”

And he hopes his photograph might change the way people see the situation: “Love,” he says, quoting the movie Interstellar, “is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends time and space.” And, perhaps, borders.”

Some Lessons on War and Forced Displacement

Lessons from our SSHB conference on The Human Biology of Poverty, held in Lisbon earlier this month. Thanks to Ines Varela Silva for putting together a great conference in a beautiful country.

This is not a complete list, but a copy and paste of some of the highlights from our session: 

Presentations

  • War and forced displacement: Embodiment of conflict-related experiences (Patrick Clarkin)
  • Female minor refugees: Are they underprivileged by forensic age estimation? (Bianca Gelbrich)
  • War and its effect on the changes in lifestyles: a case of Croatia (Sasa Missoni)
  • Secular trends of somatic development in Abkhazian children and adolescents for the last decades (Elena Godina)
  • Do stress biomarkers track poverty, stress, and trauma? Evaluating war-affected youth (Amelia Sancilio)
  • Refugees in Portugal: What do we know? (Cristina Santinho and Ines Varela-Silva)
  • Poster: Maya Guatemalan children in refugee camps in Mexico. How bad is their growth status? (Aya Ueno, Barry Bogin, Faith Warner and Ines Varela-Silva)

Summary of the session

Below are some reasons why our research is important and how it is relevant  for the public in general.

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You Are My Cousin

There’s so many different worlds
So many different suns
And we have just one world
But we live in different ones

         — Mark Knopfler, Brothers in Arms

I had the above T-shirt custom-made a couple of weeks ago, which reads “you are my cousin” in several languages. I can’t say for certain whether all of the translations are 100% accurate, but I tried to include a diverse range of languages, including the most commonly spoken ones (and Hmong; I just had to include Hmong). I’ve yet to wear it in public, but I am curious whether people will ask me about it. My hope is that it will get people to think a little about human diversity, similarity, difference, and how we are all related.

Of course, I’m playing fast and loose with terminology here, using ‘cousin’ in a very broad evolutionary sense. From an evolutionary perspective, genetic ties (or ‘blood’) are considered important since they indicate degree of shared genetic material. However, not every society sees family relations in the same way, which is a testament to the power of culture.

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