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As the Conflict in Ethnic Areas Continues the International Community and the Burma Government Must Respect the Rights of Refugees and IDPs

By Burma Partnership  •  June 23, 2015

kh9Every year on 20 June, many refugees who have fled Burma due to ongoing conflict, persecution, and human rights abuses, mark World Refugee Day with a sense of uncertainty and anxiety towards their future. This year, as the rainy season begins, refugees along the Thailand-Burma border and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Kachin, Chin, Arakan and northern Shan States, as well as other conflict-ridden areas, face severe shortages in aid. Over 220,000 IDPs are in camps in northern Burma, while a further 110,000 refugees live in a protracted refugee situation along the Thailand-Burma border. If Burma hopes to make a genuine transition towards democracy it must recognize, respect, and protect the rights of refugees and IDPs.

Since 2012, funding along the Thailand-Burma border has been steadily decreasing, fueling fears that the 110,000 refugees who live there will be repatriated before the Burma Government’s rhetoric of democracy, peace, and transition comes to fruition. The recent enforcement of regulations on movement in and out of the camps by authorities has restricted refugees from attaining other sources of income to support their daily needs, increasing the plea for adequate aid at a time when funding is becoming scarce.

Rather than alleviating their concerns, governments and international donors have neglected their fears of repatriation. Further exasperating their worries, reports of possible pilot projects for refugees, IDPs and/or families of ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) in Karen, Karenni, and Mon States, along with Tenasserim and Bago Regions have emerged. While the Burma Government and EAOs are currently the main initiators of these resettlement projects, international actors have also been actively involved in monitoring and constructing shelters for these sites – without consultations with the refugees themselves.

According to a statement issued on World Refugee Day by the Karen Women Organization (KWO), a community-based organization working closely with refugees along the Thailand-Burma border that has been endorsed by 77 solidarity organizations, the “conditions that led refugees to flee in the first place have yet to be resolved, as initial ceasefires have proven to be fragile and regularly breached.” As ethnic communities continue to “seek refuge from the Burma Army’s relentless offensives, there is no guarantee that fighting will not occur in or spread to locations where refugees may return.”

Despite ceasefire talks, according to Free Burma Rangers (FBR), a humanitarian organization delivering aid to civilians, fighting between the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and Burma Army in the Kokang area, northern Shan State, has been escalating over the past two months. “The Burma Army has increased its troop levels in the region and has engaged in major military operations, including the use of tanks and heavy artillery barrages” said FBR in a statement. Over 100,000 people have been displaced from the Kokang area since fighting broke out in February 2015.

These numbers are in addition to the 120,000 displaced people in Kachin State who have fled their homes since the Burma Army breached a ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) four years ago. Both local and international organizations have struggled to provide aid to those displaced by the conflict as the Burma Government restricts movement of aid in conflict ridden and/or EAO controlled areas. According to a statement endorsed by over 55 solidarity organizations, starting this month, “IDPs are expected to receive as little as 200 Kyat per day (USD 0.18) in aid, which is impossible to survive on.”

In addition, food supplies for 350 Khumi Chin IDPs who fled the outbreak of conflict in March 2015 between the Arakan Army and the Burma Army will also run out at the end of the month. “The long-standing pattern of abuses hasn’t stopped; in fact we see it escalating in the Paletwa area, [Chin State]” said Rachel Fleming, Chin Human Rights Organization’s Advocacy Director in a statement. To add insult to injury, the Chin IDPs are being pressured by the Burma authorities to return to areas where they believe both sides have already laid landmines.

We reiterate the calls of KWO that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, international donors, the Burma Government and all parties involved must hold genuine consultations with refugees and IDPs as primary stakeholders in the timing, conditions and locations of their safe and dignified voluntary return. If the Burma Government hopes to bring home the refugees and convince IDPs to return, it must “participate in the peace process in good faith by immediately ceasing all offensives and withdrawing all troops stationed in ethnic areas, honor original ceasefire agreements, and begin political dialogue prior to the discussion of repatriation.” Until a safe and dignified return of refugees and IDPs can be ensured, the international donors must continue the provision of aid and assistance; and the Burma Government must allow international aid agencies access to those affected by conflict, in cooperation with local organizations. Otherwise, the ethnic communities of Burma will continue to be caught in a cycle of conflict and displacement, and peace in Burma will remain elusive.

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