CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Hollywood superstar Angelina Jolie, who also serves as a special envoy of the UN’s refugee agency, has urged the international community not to forget about the Burmese refugees living for decades in camps on the Thai-Burma border.
Jolie urged the world to continue supporting the refugees, as humanitarian funding from some international donors has dried up and amid reports of indirect pressure for their repatriation from the host nation Thailand.
Jolie made the comments during her visit to one of the world’s longest-running refugee situations on the Thai-Burma border, where an estimated 120,000 Burmese refugees have been living in nine camps, some for more than 30 years.
“She [Jolie] appealed to the international community not to forget about this group,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokeswoman Vivian Tan told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday. “That now it is important to continue supporting them, so that they can find a solution to their future in exile. She asked the world community to keep supporting them.”
During her visit to Ban Mae Nai Soi, a remote Karenni refugee camp in northern Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province, Jolie also called for urgent action to end the vicious cycle of violence and displacement worldwide, amid news last week that the world’s displaced population has exceeded 50 million people for the first time since World War II.
Due to a decades-long civil war in Burma, successive generations of Burmese refugees have lived in the camps on the Thai-Burma border. Restrictions on movement mean some generations have never known anything but life in the camps.
During her trip to the Karenni camp, Jolie visited one such family, whose elderly matriarch Baw Meh said the family had lived in the refugee camp for 18 years, having arrived to Ban Mae Nai Soi in 1996.
“She [Jolie] mostly listened to what the refugees wanted. She was trying to understand how they are surviving in the camp and what their plans are for the future,” Tan said.
In a short video released by the UNHCR, Jolie told of how refugees had fled across with no idea of the future that would await.
“Many thought they would be gone for a few weeks. No one imagined they would still be here 30 years later,” Jolie said.
Baw Meh, the Karenni mother who met Jolie said, “We ran by ourselves not knowing where we were going. I thought we would come here and then go straight back home. But, we couldn’t go back.”
“My children became adults in the camp. They had children here. If my great grandchildren have children, I will be hunched like a tiger,” Baw Meh joked.
Burma’s reformist government has undertaken an ambitious attempt to reach peace with the country’s ethnic armed groups, and all but two of the rebel groups have signed ceasefire agreements. With the peace program yielding a fewer hostilities between the government military and rebel factions and a reduction violence against civilian populations, some have begun to ponder a future in which Burmese refugees are able to return home.
However, with peace talks bogging down in recent months, intermittent clashes despite the ceasefires and ongoing reports of human rights abuses against civilians, many have said repatriation is a nonstarter at the moment. Meanwhile, refugees are finding it increasingly difficult to survive in Thailand as humanitarian assistance, including rice rations, has been reduced over the last year.
Last week, Thai authorities and representatives from NGOs and the UNHCR held a meeting in Mae Sot, Thailand, to discuss repatriation plans for Burmese refugees on the border.
“After 30 years in exile, the best solution we can give these refugees is the right and power to choose their own way forward,” Jolie said in a press release by the UNHCR on Friday.
Jolie has made trips to the refugee camps in the past, with last week’s visit her third, during which she also met with refugee community leaders.