No back-up plan for Karenni refugees in Thai bor­der camp as funds dry up

The Myanmar Times - - News - CA­ROLE OUDOT MATTHIEU BAUDEY news­room@mm­

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.”

Photo: Sup­plied/Andy Gros­bois

For many of 14,000 mainly Karenni refugees at the Ban Mai Nai Soi camp, go­ing home does not seem like a ten­able op­tion.

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