EU to Cambodia: Fix human rights or face economic hardship

Both Cambodia and Myanmar heavily depend on the European Union's duty and quota free trade agreement. But the European bloc believes it is time that these countries address human rights abuses. Ate Hoekstra reports.

Already saddled with debt, Cambodian textile worker Chul Sreymom fears she will lose her job if the EU drops Cambodia's preferential trade status. "If I lose my job, I would be forced to sell my cows and my land. In that scenario, I will be left with only one option: go abroad to find work," she told DW.

Asia | 30.12.2013

In October, Cecilia Malmström, the EU commissioner for International Trade and Trade Agreements, announced that Cambodia would cease to be a part of the European bloc's Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme because of the Southeast Asian country's disregard for human and labour rights.

The EU's EBA program is important for Cambodia and other developing countries, as they can export their products to Europe free of duty and quota. The removal from the EBA would mean that thousands of Cambodians could lose their jobs.

Myanmar could face the same sanction. A European Union delegation visited the country earlier this month to evaluate Myanmar's response to the violence against Rohingya Muslims.

A decision about Myanmar's removal from the EBA hasn't been made yet, but Malmström made it clear that the country must pay heed to the Rohingya issue. "If they don't act, Myanmar authorities are putting their country's tariff-free access to the EU market in danger," she said.

The process to remove a country from the EBA can take up to 18 months.

Read more: Cambodian garment workers demand higher wages

Dependence on the EU market

People in Cambodia and Myanmar are worried about the EU measures, as both countries rely heavily on clothing and shoe factories that manufacture products for Western markets.

Western clothing brands such as H&M, C&A and Adidas often look for outsourcing production to countries that have a cheap workforce. They could move out their production if these countries were removed from the EBA. This could lead to the closure of factories and to massive unemployment.

Cambodian factories that manufacture products for EU markets employ over 700,000 people. Garments are the country's biggest export – about 43 percent of which makes its way to Europe.

Rohingya in Bangladesh: One year after the exodus

Dusty, hot and crowded – and almost as big as Cologne

Rohingya began fleeing Myanmar to Bangladesh decades ago, resulting in the Kutupalong refugee camp near the southeastern city, Cox’s Bazar. But the camp population has increased dramatically since August 2017 and additional camps have been set up. Almost a million people now live in Kutupalong – a city almost the size of Cologne, but lacking the infrastructure.

Rohingya in Bangladesh: One year after the exodus

Soccer fever in the refugee camp

International flags were flying at the entrance to the Kutupalong refugee camp during the World Cup. Among the many Brazilian and Argentinian flags were also occasional German ones. Soccer fever was alive in other parts of the camp and in surrounding villages as well. The young community journalists were there to cover it, adding a touch of joy even in a time of crisis.

Rohingya in Bangladesh: One year after the exodus

Monsoon floods and landslides

Coping with extreme weather conditions is one of the hardest challenges. Cyclones threaten the camp in the spring, torrential rains take over during the monsoon season. Community reporters of the “Palonger Hotha” program offer listeners vital information for survival. This includes where to find bamboo sticks to reinforce shelters, and areas that need to be evacuated due to potential mudslides.

Rohingya in Bangladesh: One year after the exodus

No one stays dry

Another goal of the radio program is to strengthen the way people see themselves, by taking their daily lives seriously. The reporter team, made up of young Rohingyas and local Bangladeshis, asks families, for example, how their lives are affected when they have to huddle together for hours, due to the weather conditions.

Rohingya in Bangladesh: One year after the exodus

Collecting constructive ideas

The reporters look for constructive ideas that can inspire the listeners. One reporter, Sajeda, reported on “hanging vegetable gardens”, where beans are planted as a way to increase the food supply despite limited space. The reporters also look at household remedies for curing illnesses that, due to hygiene issues, spread during the rainy season.

Rohingya in Bangladesh: One year after the exodus

Education instead of a “lost generation”

How can children learn to remember their way home? What can they do to not get lost in the refugee camp? And what are the challenges facing the camp’s Learning Centers? Education for the refugee children is of special concern to the reporter, Iqbal. There are so far no real schools for the children.

Rohingya in Bangladesh: One year after the exodus

New for Rohingya: Elefant alarms

The refugee camp lies along the migration route for the Asian elephants. Several camp residents, however, were killed in early 2018 when they tried to chase the elephants away. In response, the United Nations held a seminar showing how people should act when elephants approach. “Palonger Hotha” reporters covered this for their program.

Rohingya in Bangladesh: One year after the exodus

Locals can give advice

Unlike the new refugees, locals know from experience how to react if approached by an elephant: stay calm, don’t move, and the elephant will walk away on its own. DW Akademie trainer Andrea Marshall and translator Romana Akther Shanta learned this in July, on their way to the production of the 12th radio show.

Rohingya in Bangladesh: One year after the exodus

Logging green hills

Some local Bangladeshis have found work connected to the refugee camp, but also complain that food prices have risen in the region since the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya. Green hills have since been logged because the refugees need space and firewood. This is why it is so important that the community radio program also covers the views of locals.

Rohingya in Bangladesh: One year after the exodus

Conflict-sensitive approach

Working together with local trainer Mainul Khan, the “Palonger Hotha” team learns how to deal carefully with potentially sensitive topics. The program does not cover politics. On the other hand, the UNHCR’s “Smart Card”, that is supposed to facilitate the (voluntary) return to Myanmar but which many Rohingya find suspicious, is well reported on.

Rohingya in Bangladesh: One year after the exodus

Overcoming trauma

Traumatic experiences also mark the first anniversary of the mass exodus that began August 25. But at the same time, many people say they are starting to face their trauma – slowly, step by step.

Similarly, Myanmar's 500 factories employ around 480,000 people. The EU is the Myanmar's biggest market, which receives about 45 percent of Cambodia's total exports.

"I earn between $200 (€177) and $250 (€221) per month. I can support my parents who live in the countryside, as well as my younger sister who's still studying," Sreymom said, adding that she would lose her livelihood if the factory shuts down.

But the EU wants to censure the Cambodian government for committing grave human rights abuses and repressing political opponents and rights activists. The country's largest opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party, was declared illegal by the country's Supreme Court last year. The July election only consolidated the one-party rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been ruling the country since 1985.

Read more: Cambodian opposition presses on amid growing clampdown

In Myanmar, the Rohingya crisis has intensified since August 2017. The stateless minority group is facing serious oppression in the Buddhist-majority country, with close to 700,000 Rohingya fleeing to neighboring countries since the start of a military crackdown in August, 2017. Since then, at least 10,000 Rohingyas have been killed and thousands have been displaced. A UN report has accused Myanmar's top military commanders of committing genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Is the pressure working?

Malmström recently said it's not too late yet for Cambodia and Myanmar to turn the tide, but a tariff-free access to the EU won't come without conditions.

"The EU is one of the biggest export markets for Cambodia. If there's no EBA, our workers will lose their jobs and their income," Ath Thorn, the president of the Cambodian Labour Confederation, the country's largest trade union, warned.

"I encourage the EU and the Cambodian government to engage in talks and iron out differences," Thorn told DW.

Andrea Breyer of the AVE trade association of German retailers in Myanmar told DW that the Southeast Asian country's potential removal from the EBA could be damaging. "As most garment factories in Myanmar mainly produce for the European market, it is likely that many of them won't be able to keep their businesses running. This would mainly affect women, as they make up 98 percent of the workforce in these factories," Breyer said.

The EU measures apparently are yielding some results. Last week PM Hun Sen agreed to grant more rights and freedom to labor unions. He also promised that cases against union leaders should be reviewed or dropped.

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