No back-up plan for Karenni refugees in Thai border camp as funds dry up
AS the first wave of Myanmar refugees is repatriated from Thai border camps this week, returning to a home some have not seen for decades, others in the camps fear they will soon have no choice but to follow suit.
Since the National League for Democracy took office six months ago, life for Myanmar refugees in Thailand has become no less precarious. Donor support has plummeted, and the pressure to return to states still lacking infrastructure, dotted with landmines and in some cases still entrenched in armed conflict, has swiftly increased.
At the Ban Mai Nai Soi camp, 30 kilometres (18.6 miles) from Mae Hong Son, Thailand, most of the refugees hail from eastern Kayah State, a land devastated by years of civil war between the Tatmadaw and the Karenni Army, the military branch of the Karenni National Progressive Party.
People started to flee Kayah State in 1992. The Ban Mai Nai Soi camp opened officially in 1996. It now shelters more than 14,000 people.
New residents still come to the camp each month. Instead of war, people are now flowing in to escape poverty and a lack of infrastructure.
“I had to find another way for my education,” said Peter-Paul, 21. He arrived in the camp three years ago. “My family could not afford my studies so I decided to come here. I will go back to Myanmar one day.”
Peter-Paul said attending university in Loikaw, the Kayah State capital, was not a realistic means of attaining his education. “Too expensive. And the level is not good,” he said. He preferred to join the almost-free education programs provided by NGOs around the refugee camp. Here, he can study English, history, social sciences, politics and human rights.
With Kayah State so remote and short on hospitals and schools, refugees said they would rather exile themselves to a Thai refugee camp on the border than remain trapped in their rugged homeland.
“We face a lot of challenges on the local level,” Peter-Paul said. “Access to healthcare, studies and a good job is still difficult. Even if the politicians say the situation has changed under democracy, in Kayah State not much has changed.”
Many of the refugees say they have no home or social network to return to. Shardaw township, where many once lived, has been vastly depopulated.
“Some of my students went to visit their village. They found nothing but huge trees, jungle and landmines,” said Andy Grosbois, a French teacher for the Karenni National College.
After the NLD won the elections and took control of the government, the Karenni refugees have felt less afraid to return to Myanmar and visit their relatives. But for many, the idea of a permanent return is still impossible to conceptualise.
“What if they go back, the camp closes and the fighting resumes? That’s their main concern,” said Luiz Martin, secretary of the Karenni Refugee Committee.
But as funding for the camps ebbs away, and Myanmar and Thailand start negotiating repatriations plans, the refugees feel pressure to return, and soon, is being dialed up.
“The donations decreased last year,” said Luiz Martin.
According to data from The Border Consortium, donations have fallen from US$21 million dollars in 2015 to $17 million in 2016. TBC is mostly supported by European-based INGOs and religious groups.
According to TBC’s last annual report, “With staple food prices increasing and a reduction in support from some donors, it has been more challenging than ever to carry out TBC’s work. This has forced TBC to make cuts to the programme, including cuts to the food rations.”
“There are significant funding cuts from the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) [65 percent cut] and the European Community Humanitarian Office which stopped funding completely,” the report added.
TBC’s executive director Sally Thompson said, “The need for humanitarian funding for refugees in Thailand is competing with the funding needs of other refugee crises globally, such as Syria. Also, the interests of some donors have shifted from refugee support to addressing needs inside Myanmar.”
In addition to pulling the plug on funding, many groups are also planning to reduce their staff at the refugee camps.
“As funding has been reduced, we have cut back on TBC staff in some of the areas in which we work – shelter, food delivery and livelihoods training – but Camp Committees, comprised of the refugees themselves, have taken over a number of functions,” Ms Thompson added.
For the Karenni Refugee Committee the situation is becoming critical as some of their own members leave without notification.
“We are getting short on staff. Four people out of 15 left us this year. Sometimes we are not even aware they left until we see pictures on Facebook!” said Luiz Martin says.
Feeling the camp might close on them, many of the Karenni refugees are rushing to apply for third-party resettlement. Thousands from the Ban Mai Nai Soi camp have resettled in Australia and the US.
Those who choose to remain find even daily necessities are an uphill battle.
“People [in the camp] are struggling more and leave more often to find food,” said Luiz Martin. “They go to work illegally for Thai farmers in the surrounding area. The pay is not good.” The strategy is also dangerous since the refugees are not officially allowed outside of the camp. They are also officially prohibited from selling the rice liquor and pork they produce in the camp.
Since food rations supplied in the camp are not nearly enough to meet demand, refugees have to find other ways to make ends meet, something that is getting harder and harder because of tightened police control. Many leave the camp and try their luck in Thai cities where they work illegally.
“More people arrive here and stay for a few days only, then they leave for Thailand, where they face troubles if the authorities find out,” said Luiz Martin.
In Ban Mai Nai Soi, official plans for repatriation have yet to be initiated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees or the governments of Myanmar and Thailand. Decreasing support at the camp does not mean an alternative is on the agenda.
And even as repatriations are under way at the Nu Po camp for some Karen refugees, the 14,000 still at Ban Mai Nai Soi have no other choice than to wait while their living conditions deteriorate.
“There is no indication that any camp is likely to close in the near future,” Ms Thompson at TBC said.
“The challenge for the NGOs is to ensure access to essential services in camps until such time as refugees are able to safely return to Myanmar or other appropriate lasting solutions are found.”
For many of 14,000 mainly Karenni refugees at the Ban Mai Nai Soi camp, going home does not seem like a tenable option.