A picture or a thousand words? Drone and satellites expose Myanmar's pain

LONDON, Nov 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The Rohingya refugee crisis is an age-old tale of displacement and suffering, but technology is providing new tools to tackle it, rights groups and charities said on Wednesday.

Powerful drone and satellite images are bringing to life the urgent needs of more than 800,000 Rohingya refugees who fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar, while also providing strong evidence of abuses, which could be used to lobby for justice.

"We can describe for hours the large numbers of refugees crossing the border and how quickly existing camps have expanded, but one image captures it all," said Andrej Mahecic, a spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR).

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Devastation in Myanmar from above
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Devastation in Myanmar from above
COX'S BAZAR, BANGLADESH - OCTOBER 03: Makeshift shelters are seen at the sprawling Balukali Rohingya refuge camp on October 3, 2017 in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. More than half a million Rohingya refugees have flooded into Bangladesh to flee an offensive by Myanmar's military that the United Nations has called 'a textbook example of ethnic cleansing'. The refugee population is expected to swell further, with thousands more Rohingya Muslims said to be making the perilous journey on foot toward the border, or paying smugglers to take them across by water in wooden boats. Hundreds are known to have died trying to escape, and survivors arrive with horrifying accounts of villages burned, women raped, and scores killed in the 'clearance operations' by Myanmar's army and Buddhist mobs that were sparked by militant attacks on security posts in Rakhine state on August 25, 2017. What the Rohingya refugees flee to is a different kind of suffering in sprawling makeshift camps rife with fears of malnutrition, cholera, and other diseases. Aid organizations are struggling to keep pace with the scale of need and the staggering number of them - an estimated 60 percent - who are children arriving alone. Bangladesh, whose acceptance of the refugees has been praised by humanitarian officials for saving lives, has urged the creation of an internationally-recognized 'safe zone' where refugees can return, though Rohingya Muslims have long been persecuted in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar. World leaders are still debating how to confront the country and its de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who championed democracy, but now appears unable or unwilling to stop the army's brutal crackdown. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
This picture taken on October 10, 2017 shows burnt villages near Maungdaw in Northern Rakhine State. / AFP PHOTO / Marion THIBAUT (Photo credit should read MARION THIBAUT/AFP/Getty Images)
This picture taken on October 10, 2017 shows burnt villages near Maungdaw in Northern Rakhine State. / AFP PHOTO / Marion THIBAUT (Photo credit should read MARION THIBAUT/AFP/Getty Images)
This picture taken on October 10, 2017 shows the remains of burnt villages near Maungdaw in Northern Rakhine State. Ahead is a river they can't afford to cross, behind is hunger and hostility. So hundreds of Rohingya encamped on a black sand beach in Myanmar's Maungdaw cling to thinning hopes of safe passage to Bangladesh -- before their food runs out. / AFP PHOTO / Marion THIBAUT / TO GO WITH Myanmar-Bangladesh-unrest-religion, SCENE by Marion THIBAUT with Alexandre MARCHAND (Photo credit should read MARION THIBAUT/AFP/Getty Images)
This picture taken on October 10, 2017 shows burnt villages near Maungdaw in Northern Rakhine State. / AFP PHOTO / Marion THIBAUT (Photo credit should read MARION THIBAUT/AFP/Getty Images)
Over 500k ppl have fled violence in #Myanmar. This drone clip captures the sheer scale of their makeshift camps… https://t.co/HlZ3htHdOX
View of a hill where Rohingya refugees tents were removed by Bangladeshi government at Tang Khali refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 18, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Rohingya refugees, who crossed the border from Myanmar two days before, still camps at the banks of the Naf river waiting to receive permission from the Bangladeshi army to continue their way to the refugee camps, in Palang Khali, Bangladesh October 18, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
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More than 600,000 Rohingya have fled to neighboring Bangladesh since the military in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar launched a counter-insurgency operation after attacks on security posts by Rohingya militants in late August.

The UNHCR is using videos and photographs shot with drones to show the scale of the displacement crisis and bring it to life to spur action from the public and donors.

It is also using satellites to count and identify refugee families by their location in the Bangladesh camps to target assistance to those most in need, Mahecic told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an email.

The use of drone footage of refugees entering Bangladesh has boosted donations for medical care, water and food, according to the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), an alliance of 13 leading British aid agencies.

Rights monitors also hope satellite images can provide evidence that to help bring perpetrators to justice.

29 PHOTOS
Children impacted by Rohingya crisis in Myanmar
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Children impacted by Rohingya crisis in Myanmar
Rohingya refugees, who crossed the border from Myanmar two days earlier, walk after they received permission from the Bangladesh army to continue their way to the Kutupalong refugee camp, in Balukhali near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 19, 2017. REUTERS/ Zohra Bensemra
Rohingya refugee sits with her baby while waiting to receive humanitarian aid after arriving at Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 19, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Rohingya refugee baby, who crossed the border from Myanmar two days earlier, sleeps on his mother's shoulder while waiting to receive humanitarian aid after arriving at Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 19, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Rohingya refugees, who crossed the border from Myanmar two days earlier, queue to receive humanitarian aid while arriving at Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 19, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
A Rohingya refugee girl, who crossed the border from Myanmar two days earlier, waits to receive humanitarian aid at Kutupalong refugee camp, near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 19, 2017. REUTERS/ Zohra Bensemra
A Rohingya refugee girl who crossed the border from Myanmar two days before, crawls under a barbed wire during her walk to the Kotupalang refugee camp near Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh October 19, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Rohingya refugees, who crossed the border from Myanmar two days earlier, rest while they wait to receive humanitarian aids at Kutupalong refugees camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 19, 2017. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
Rohingya refugees, who crossed the border from Myanmar two days earlier, rest while they wait to receive humanitarian aids at Kutupalong refugees camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 19, 2017. REUTERS/ Zohra Bensemra
A Rohingya refugee boy sits on the ground at Tang Khali refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 18, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
A Rohingya refugee girl poses with a chicken at Balukhali refugee camp near Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh October 17, 2017. Picture taken October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Mohamed Hares, an 8-month-old Rohingya refugee, receives treatment for a lung infection at the Red Cross emergency hospital near Kotupalang refugee camp, near Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A still unnamed four-days-old Rohingya refugee baby who crossed the border from Myanmar a day before, waits with his mother to receive permission from the Bangladeshi army to continue their way to the refugee camps, in Palang Khali, Bangladesh October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A Rohingya refugee baby who crossed the border from Myanmar a day before, sleeps with his mother on a field as they wait to receive permission from the Bangladeshi army to continue their way to the refugee camps, in Palang Khali, Bangladesh October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Rohingya refugees who crossed the border from Myanmar a day before, sleep on a field as they wait to receive permission from the Bangladeshi army to continue their way to the refugee camps, in Palang Khali, Bangladesh October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Rohingya refugees arrive to the Bangladeshi side of the Naf river after crossing the border from Myanmar, in Palang Khali, Bangladesh October 16, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Rohingya refugees who fled from Myanmar wait to be let through after they were forced to walk back by Bangladesh border guards, in Palang Khali, Bangladesh October 16, 2017. REUTERS/ Zohra Bensemra
A 7 months old, malnourished Rohingya child cries as she lies on the floor at her family shelter in Kutupalong, refugees camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, October 15, 2017. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
Hamida, 65, a Rohingya refugee, who fled from Myanmar a day before, reacts after she along with other newly arrived refugees, spent a night waiting to be allowed to walk to a relief centre in Teknaf, near Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh, October 13, 2017. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
A Rohingya refugee girl queues to receive food at a camp near Teknaf, Bangladesh October 12, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Rohingya refugees who crossed the border last night ride on the back of the truck that takes them to a camp near Teknaf, Bangladesh October 12, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
A Rohingya refugee child lines up to receive an oral cholera vaccine, distributed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) with the help of volunteers and local NGO's, in a refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 11, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
A Rohingya refugee child gets an oral cholera vaccine, distributed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) with the help of volunteers and local NGO's, in a refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 11, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
A Rohingya refugee child gets an oral cholera vaccine, distributed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) with the help of volunteers and local NGO's, in a refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 11, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
A daughter of Ansar Ullah, a Rohingya refugee who fled with his family from Myanmar a day before, is carried in a basket by her father after thousands of newly arrived refugees spent a night by the road between refugee camps near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 10, 2017. Ansar Ullah, who said his village in Buthidaung region was attacked by Myanmar military, carried his two daughters in baskets for eight days as he and other refugees were making their way to Bangladesh. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Nd Rashid, a 28-year-old Rohingya refugee who fled with his family from Myanmar a day before, waits for medical attention after spending the night by the road between refugee camps near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 10, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Rohingya refugees walk in a rice field after crossing the border in Palang Khali, Bangladesh October 9, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
A Rohingya refugee man hols his child as he swims to cross Myanmar-Bangladesh border in Palang Khali, Bangladesh, October 9, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
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Satellite photos were used in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) to prove mass executions in 1995 in Srebrenica.

But the technology has yet to achieve its potential because of limited budgets and a lack of standardised methodologies accepted by courts, experts say.

Human Rights Watch has shared satellite images showing the burning of almost 300 villages in Myanmar, refugees' mobile phone footage and their testimonies with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

"We have found the debris field in satellite imagery where people were executed, corroborating multiple eyewitness statements," said Josh Lyons, a satellite imagery analyst with the U.S.-based rights group.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein has called the violence against Rohingya in Myanmar "a textbook example of ethnic cleansing", and his office is working to determine whether it meets the legal definition of genocide.

(Reporting by Lee Mannion @leemannion. Editing by Katy Migiro)

 

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