How ‘humanitarian technology’ can help deal with Rohingya crisis

A pregnant Rohingya refugee who is in labor, is brought to a medical center on a stretcher after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in Palong Khali, near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, Nov. 3, 2017.
A pregnant Rohingya refugee who is in labor, is brought to a medical center on a stretcher after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in Palong Khali, near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, Nov. 3, 2017.

Since August 25, 2017, the world has experienced one of the most brutal and fastest-growing humanitarian crises that led to the “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” involving the Rohingya community in Myanmar. Being a neighbouring country and respectful of their human rights, Bangladesh has since provided shelter to more than 600,000 Rohingyas who fled persecution by the Myanmar army and their local cohorts. Most of these refugees (although Bangladesh doesn’t give them the refugee status, and instead considers them as displaced Myanmar citizens) are women and children.

We would not have realised the actual level of devastation on the ground had it not been for the satellite images and drone footage showing burnt villages and houses as frightened people, with whatever left of their belongings, crossed over into Bangladesh to save their lives. We also had audio-video clips and still pictures shared on social media by the victims, journalists and human rights activists. These digital technologies have revealed the gravity of the situation, mobilised popular opinion and played a crucial role to make the international community and governments listen and respond.

The role of information and communications technology in bringing up real stories about the humanitarian crises unfolding in different parts of the world has been the subject of much discussion in recent times. These technologies, besides collecting evidence, are also being used to coordinate distribution of humanitarian aids in remote areas and conflict zones.

A new term coined to address this emergent field of technology—“humanitarian technology”—is now being used by the rights activists, aid workers, social and political activists, scientists and researchers, and applied to a broadly defined context of crises, including humanitarian disasters. They are using the technologies to collect, process and disseminate information from the conflict and crisis zones worldwide.

According to an article published by the International Committee of the Red Cross, humanitarian technologies have fundamentally altered how humanitarian crises are detected and addressed, and how information is collected, analysed and disseminated. These developments are changing the possibilities for prevention, response and resource mobilisation for the humanitarian actors and the affected communities alike. They have been helping us to understand the gravity and impact of the situation on which short- and long-term policies for action are being made by the state and non-state actors. Also, these humanitarian technologies can help in evidence documentation during a crisis or conflict, which can later be used to find its root cause(s) or punish the offenders.

But using humanitarian technology can also compromise the objective of the humanitarian action and obscure issues of accountability towards the victims. Therefore, how technological innovation affects humanitarian action needs a critical enquiry. For example, Bangladesh government is collecting biometric data of the Rohingya refugees although it does not have any data protection law. It has purchased software from Tiger IT (The Daily Star, September 11), a private company, and we do not know under which policy this software company will ensure the protection of the personal data of the Rohingyas.

There is also the risk that the data might somehow be leaked to an adversary group (through hacking, for example) which will put the Rohingyas in danger during future repatriation. Moreover, international organisations like the UNHCR are also collecting baseline data of the Rohingyas through a data-gathering smartphone app. If there is no coordination among Bangladesh government and international humanitarian organisations on this matter, any difference between the databases might create an opportunity for the Myanmar authorities to discredit and delay the repatriation process.

Meanwhile, the Rohingyas are contacting their relatives inside Myanmar through WhatsApp, Viber and other social media services (Dhaka Tribune, October 26). As the mainstream media has largely failed to provide real-time information, victims are finding alternative ways (new media) to communicate inside Myanmar. For example, Rohingya refugees are reportedly receiving various video clips, text messages and still pictures of atrocities through dozens of WhatsApp groups to fill the information gap. But often the source of information is untraceable, and some of them are found to be fake news. This also raises the possibility of politically motivated disinformation which might be spread by adversary parties like ARSA and the Myanmar military junta. It also raises security concerns for the governments of Bangladesh, India and Myanmar.

But there is also the concern that over-securitisation might curtail the freedom of expression and the right to information of the Rohingyas as well. Any restriction on using humanitarian technologies might hamper the re-unification and repatriation initiatives for the Rohingyas in the long run. For example, without the humanitarian technology, Kamal and his younger brother Nazir would not have been able to reunite lost Rohingya refugees with their family members through “lost and found” booth in Kutupalong Refugee Camp (Al Jazeera, September 27; Dhaka Tribune, October 17).

It’s important that the human rights of Rohingyas, despite being a stateless community, are respected and protected by all the government and non-government actors. I think there should not be any limit on the use of humanitarian technologies. Rather, the victims, governments and humanitarian aid agencies should be allowed to use them as per the “Responsible Data Principle,” according to which the collection, storage, and use of data should be carefully planned; and data should be collected for a specific purpose and deleted once that purpose has been fulfilled.

Any surveillance on the Rohingyas or restriction against the spread of fake news and politically motivated propaganda should be strictly targeted and duly authorised by a judicial authority. Also, there should be greater coordination on the use of humanitarian technologies, supported by a multi-stakeholder right-based approach which will include the victims, local people, government and non-government organisations involved in the process.

Md Saimum Reza Talukder is an advocate in District Court, Dhaka.