“Every minute, eight people around the world are forced to flee their homes due to war and persecution. No one chooses to be a refugee.”
Those were the words of UNHCR’s special envoy Angeline Jolie in a videotaped public statement to mark World Refugee Day 2012 on June 20.
The UN estimates no less than 43 million refugees exist throughout the globe, and Burma accounts for a disproportionately high number: 145,000 registered refugees on Thai soil, and an estimated 500,000 displaced persons within Burma. In addition, some 70,000 people from Burmese refugee camps have been resettled in third countries in recent years.
Most are ethnic Karen, but all the ethnic nationalities of Burma can be found at the nine refugee camps dotted along the Thai-Burmese border. Some are political dissidents; some belong to outlawed groups; many are ex-soldiers; some are landmine victims; a huge percentage are children—a new generation of Burmese growing up in a jungle camp without ever knowing his or her own homeland. With few exceptions, they all share one distinction—they all fled their homes in fear of their lives.
Accepting her belated Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo at the weekend, Burma’s pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi said, “When I met Myanmar migrant workers and refugees during my recent visit to Thailand, many cried out: ‘Don’t forget us!’ They meant: ‘Don’t forget our plight! Don’t forget to do what you can to help us! Don’t forget we also belong to your world!’”
Suu Kyi promised the thousands who turned out to greet her at Mae La refugee camp on June 2 that she would not forget them. In Oslo she called on foreign powers to increase aid to the refugees at the Thai-Burmese border.
“Can we afford to indulge in compassion fatigue?” she asked world leaders. “Is the cost of meeting the needs of refugees greater than the cost that would be consequent on turning an indifferent, if not a blind, eye on their suffering? I appeal to donors the world over to fulfill the needs of these people who are in search, often it must seem to them a vain search, of refuge.”
Following on from Suu Kyi’s speech in Oslo, and coinciding with both World Refugee Day and Suu Kyi’s visit to London, the Burma Campaign UK issued a call to the British government’s Secretary of State for International Development Andrew Mitchell urging him to increase funding to the Thailand Burma Border Consortium—the umbrella group that distributes aid to the 145,000 refugees—by 100 percent.
The issue of humanitarian aid to the refugees is one that looms large, and presents a dilemma for foreign governments eager to get involved with the new opportunities they foresee in Burma, while at the same time calling for an end to the civil war and respect for human rights.
Many government donors and INGOs have pulled their funding from the border-based groups and are instead investing in projects that can be coordinated from Rangoon or other sites inside Burma. A recent plan unveiled by the Norwegian government calls for refugees to be repatriated to “model villages.”
Writing in The Bangkok Post on Wednesday, Burmese activist Khin Ohmar questioned the policy. “Myanmar is changing, and change has brought with it talk of refugees returning. However, one should pause for a moment and seriously consider whether the reasons these people fled their country have disappeared? Can they finally find a safe refuge in their homeland?”
The question is clearly rhetorical—war continues in eastern Burma, the land is peppered with landmines, and no one can guarantee that the Burmese military will abandon its systematic policy of grossly abusing ethnic villagers.
On Wednesday, back at Mae La, those same refugees that mobbed Suu Kyi turned out again in their thousands to commemorate World Refugee Day. Many dressed in traditional Karen costume for the event, which included speeches, song and dance, and a football match.
“On 20th June each year, the world is reminded of the plight of refugees,” the Karen Women’s Organization said in a statement to mark the occasion. “They are encouraged to maintain or increase the humanitarian aid for refugees so that refugees can try to live in dignity.”
In Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, the exile group the Women’s League of Burma (WLB) organized a petition signed by 17,063 people from Burma, mostly internally displaced persons (IDPs), refugees and migrant workers. In an open letter the WLB said, “At present, we are so worried about the increased number of war refugees in Kachin State, and the fighting continues despite some reforms taking place; now the number has increased to almost 80,000 IDPs.
“In Rakhaing [Arakan] State, there is also a fierce crisis where thousands of people are now refugees; in particular it is women and children who are greatly facing a humanitarian crisis. The government must take full responsibility for the safety, including urgent arrangement on food and shelter for these people.”
The UNHCR would appear to have its hands full at Burma’s borders—its official figures may include the 145,000 registered civilians sheltering at refugee camps, but do not account for the hundreds of thousands of IDPs within Karen, Mon, Shan and now more recently Kachin State.
On World Refugee Day in Shan State, a build-up of troops and the prospect of renewed conflict between the Shan and the Wa armies alerted the Thai army to the high risk of another influx of refugees. In addition, a grave racial conflict may be on the verge of boiling over in western Burma, and access to neighboring Bangladesh is invariably denied to those seeking refuge.