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World Refugee Day Calls for Greater Awareness of Burma’s Refugees

By Burma Partnership  •  June 29, 2016

Mae La refugee camp along the Thailand-Burma border20 June, 2016 marked World Refugee Day, a global recognition of the nearly 65 million people who are displaced worldwide. In Burma, the Day served as a tragic reminder of the displacement resulting from decades of civil war, state-sponsored persecution and forced relocation. According to a report released by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Burma is the second highest contributor of both refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) in the Asia-Pacific region. By the end of 2015, there were 450,000 IDPs and 451,800 refugees, including the over 100,000 refugees that have been displaced in nine camps along the Thailand-Burma border.

The issue of displacement and statelessness is one that has affected almost all corners of Burma. Renewed conflict between the Burma Army and various ethnic armed organizations has contributed to over 100,000 IDPs in Kachin and northern Shan States. Decades of conflict, human rights abuses and land confiscations by the Burma Army have resulted in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of refugees along the eastern Burma border. This includes the Mon refugees, who were forced back to Burma in 1994. Unable to find durable livelihood solutions, the Mon IDPs, like many refugees and IDPs from ethnic areas along the southeastern border, have lived for decades relying on international aid that has steadily decreased along the border. In addition, ongoing state-sponsored persecution and the systematic denial of citizenship has also led to the forced relocation of 140,000 Rohingya, many of whom have been required to survive in temporary camps with limited access to clean water, food, medicine or other essential needs. The harsh treatment of the Rohingya came to a boiling point in May 2015, when an exodus of tens of thousands of refugees sought asylum in the neighboring countries of Bangladesh, Malaysia and Thailand.

A report from the European Commission Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection has noted that Burma also faces a high threat from natural disasters. For instance, in 2015 the combined effects of the monsoon and a cyclone resulted in floods that displaced 1.6 million people, destroyed 13,000 houses primarily in Arakan State, and which have greatly impacted food security concerns in affected regions.

A statement released on World Refugee Day from the Karen Women’s Organization (KWO) sheds light on another issue surrounding Burma’s burgeoning displacement issue: the possibility of forced repatriation. According to KWO, Karen refugees living in Thailand face increasing pressure to return to Burma, despite the fact that the Burma Army continues to reinforce its positions in ethnic areas and that a sustainable solution from the peace process is far from certain. For KWO, the return of refugees should be dignified, voluntary and sustainable, so that “we do not have to come back here again one day as refugees… forced to flee by Burmese soldiers.” The recent shift in aid priorities along the Thailand-Burma border that has led to a steady decrease in aid and funding, subsequent cuts in ration and services, and ongoing enforced restrictions on movement of refugees is rendering any prospect of a “voluntary return” meaningless. Many are concerned that the victory of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in the 2015 election will be used to justify the return of refugees from neighboring countries without the guarantee and preconditions for a safe and dignified return.

Whether and how the State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s new NLD-led Government addresses the high number of refugees, IDPs and asylum seekers in Burma is uncertain. In a recent trip to Thailand, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi prioritized the return of Burmese refugees in Thailand, “when the time is right for them.” Yet, a recent official visit to Tham Hin camp in Ratchaburi was inexplicably cancelled, at great disappointment to the refugees, and civil society groups. Worse still – Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD have not yet signaled how they will address the nearly 140,000 Rohingya IDPs in Arakan State.

The NLD-led Government should heed the reminders of World Refugee Day and begin properly addressing the root causes of decades-long displacement. Further, relocation and repatriation must be dignified and voluntary, guided by international standards and best practices such as the UN Guiding Principles on Internally Displaced Persons and the UN Principles on Housing, Land and Property Restitution for Refugees and Displaced Persons to ensure that refugees are not subjected to the same injustices that led to their departure from their homes in the first place. Above all, stakeholders need to recognize that the issue of displacement must be viewed as inclusive, and that all repatriation and discussions that will affect the future of IDPs and refugees must be in meaningful consultation with potentially affected communities. It is only through a holistic approach to supporting victims of violations that a genuine national reconciliation can be achieved.

[Photo: Mae La refugee camp along the Thailand-Burma border. Copyright: Burma Link]

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