De­spite po­lit­i­cal thaw, refugees in Thai­land re­luc­tant to go home

Mizzima Business Weekly - - CONTENTS - By Su­san Cun­ning­ham

De­spite the po­lit­i­cal re­forms since 2012 and the 2015 cease­fire,98,000 Myan­mar refugees liv­ing in nine bor­der camps in Thai­land dis­play lit­tle readi­ness to re­turn home, even as ser­vices are ta­per­ing off. “What we thought would be the trig­gers to re­turn home have come and gone,” said Sally Thomp­son, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of The Bor­der Con­sor­tium. She spoke Oc­to­ber 19 in Bangkok on a For­eign Cor­re­spon­dents of Thai­land panel on Myan­mar refugees. The Con­sor­tium is re­spon­si­ble for ba­sic hu­man­i­tar­ian ser­vices such as food, shel­ter and camp man­age­ment to the nine camps along the bor­der with Thai­land Refugees’ re­luc­tance stems from sev­eral causes, Thomp­son said. “They see on­go­ing skir­mishes. They see the KNU [Karen Na­tional Union) de­mand­ing the with­drawal of troops [from the state]. There hasn’t been any. In fact, there has been an in­crease. They want to see prac­ti­cal change on the ground. A cease­fire agree­ment is not peace. They ask, ‘Who can guar­an­tee my safety?’” Pre­dom­i­nantly Karen (Kayah), camp res­i­dents also be­long to the Kayin, Kachin, Mon, Bur­man, Pa-O, and Chin eth­nic groups.

No Thai­land pres­sure

On a pos­i­tive note, the Thai gov­ern­ment is not ex­ert­ing pres­sure to force the refugees to leave the coun­try, Thomp­son said. In­stead, it seems to wait­ing for signs that the Myan­mar gov­ern­ment is en­cour­ag­ing res­i­dents to re­turn to the homes that many left decades ago. So far, only 70 camp res­i­dents have un­der­gone the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which first re­quires reg­is­tra­tion, screen­ing and au­tho­riza­tion by the Myan­mar gov­ern­ment. Another 250 have been ap­proved, but have been wait­ing for more than a year for the repa­tri­a­tion process. Public­ity in Myan­mar sur­round­ing the 70 re­turnees last year may ac­tu­ally have dis­cour­aged oth­ers from ap­ply­ing for the for­mal UNHCR route. “They want to be as far away from Myan­mar au­thor­i­ties as pos­si­ble. They don’t want to ex­pose them­selves to the au­thor­i­ties,” Thomp­son said.“They think,‘What if the peace process col­lapses?’“Nonethe­less, 14,000 res­i­dents in the past few years have re­turned to Myan­mar on their own, with­out the as­sis­tance of the Refugee Agency and prob­a­bly with­out doc­u­men­ta­tion. Oth­ers weigh­ing the de­ci­sion to re­turn per­ma­nently have made vis­its to homes in­south­east Myan­mar to eval­u­ate lo­cal con­di­tions and op­por­tu­ni­ties in ac­cess to med­i­cal care, ed­u­ca­tion and in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy in the camps mean many are hes­i­tant to re­turn to vil­lages and towns with lit­tle in the way of such ser­vices.That is espe­cially true for the 50 per­cent of res­i­dents who are un­der age 19, most of whom have no mem­o­ries or ex­pe­ri­ences of ru­ral life and oc­cu­pa­tions.

Shrink­ing bud­gets

Mean­while, in the past decade the con­sor­tium’s an­nual bud­get has shrunk by half, to $17.5 mil­lion,even while theres­i­dent num­bers­de­clined by only 30 per­cent dur­ing the same pe­riod.Much of the drop in pop­u­la­tion has been due to refugee re­set­tle­ments tants can no longer ap­ply for refugee sta­tus. The bud­get for the 26-year-old con­sor­tium is also pre­car­i­ous. Ninety-five per­cent of its fund­ing con­sists of aid from eight donor gov­ern­ments, with the United States pro­vid­ing 70 per­cent of that to­tal. With the ex­cep­tion of Canada, which pro­vides mul­ti­year fund­ing, each gov­ern­ment makes its al­lo­ca­tion on a year by year ba­sis. The con­sor­tium has re­sponded to the cut­backs by pri­or­i­tiz­ing aid to the most vul­ner­a­ble and re­duc­ing or elim­i­nat­ing rice ra­tions to more self-suf­fi­cient house­holds.

In ad­di­tion to the con­sor­tium, an ar­ray of smaller NGOs pro­vides med­i­cal ser­vices and de­vel­op­ment ac­tiv­i­ties in the camps such ed­u­ca­tion and liveli­hood train­ing. Although she did not have any fig­ures, Thomp­son said fund­ing for th­ese NGOs has also been de­clin­ing and some have left the camps al­to­gether. If donors see their mis­sion as de­vel­op­ment, they are now likely to con­sider Myan­mar as a bet­ter base than tem­po­rary refugee camps, she said. Refugees need bet­ter in­cen­tives to re­turn home to Myan­mar. Right now, “there is no long-term strat­egy for de­vel­op­ment in the south­east,”Thomp­son said. In ad­di­tion to iden­ti­fi­ca­tion doc­u­ments and se­cu­rity, that means home vil­lages and towns in Kayah, Kayin and Mon states need dras­tic up­grades in ser­vices. “What is needed in south­east Myan­mar? How can we scale up to when peo­ple go back, will they have a sim­i­lar level of med­i­cal and ed­u­ca­tional ser­vices sim­i­lar to what they had in their camps?”

Photo: EPA

Refugees from Myan­mar in the process of be­ing re­set­tled in South Korea. The ma­jor­ity of the refugees re­main in camps in Thai­land.

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