Book Review—Refugee Camp Governance with a Difference

By Jack Dunford 2 July 2014

According to its publishers, “Governing Refugees: Justice, Order and Legal Pluralism” is a book that “will appeal to anyone with relevant interests in law, anthropology, and criminology, as well as those working in the area of Refugee Studies.”

That makes it sound as if it is mostly of academic interest, but in fact, it is much more than that. It should be a must-read for Burma watchers, for all who have been engaged in the 30-year saga of refugees on the Thai-Burmese border, and especially for those involved in refugee policymaking, including state agencies, the UN and donors.

It is presumably targeted at university libraries, but hopefully its ambiguous title, relatively high price and unhelpful back-cover academic jargon will not deter a wider audience. Kirsten McConnachie is a compelling and objective writer, and although there are forays into academia, her book is very readable and offers important insights, including many that challenge conventional wisdom.

“Governing Refugees” is an outstanding study of Karen refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border and the unique humanitarian assistance model that enabled refugees not only to survive protracted encampment with dignity for 30 years, but also to maintain and strengthen community structures—structures that potentially have crucial roles to play in resolving conflict in Burma and in rehabilitating the war-torn ethnic border states.

McConnachie lived in the refugee camps, clearly winning the trust of the population and gaining deep understanding of their traditions, values and aspirations. She realized she was witnessing something very special that challenged the common perception of refugees as powerless victims and of refugee camps as dangerous places lacking normal social structures.

Noting that “Despite the limited opportunities available in the camp, daily life is structured and industrious” and that “refugee camps in Thailand have remained relatively stable and secure throughout tremendous political and demographic flux,” McConnachie set out to study why.

In her perceptive research, she acknowledges that the self-governing refugee assistance and camp management model happened somewhat by accident. The most important factor was the Royal Thai Government’s decision not to involve the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the early years and instead to allow non-governmental organizations—principally The Border Consortium (TBC)—to adopt a pragmatic approach, which “in effect … allowed refugees to get on with the work of camp management largely without oversight.”

Formal camp management support came only 20 years later and McConnachie observes, “It is certainly possible that the decades in which camps were permitted to develop their own structures largely without interference were central to the stability that they developed.”

For many years, the model went unchallenged, and in fact was proclaimed as exemplary in many quarters for its efficiency. But by the time this research was carried out, UNHCR had been invited to provide a protection role on the border and the program was under increasing scrutiny to ensure that it met international standards.

A key concern was the perceived level of involvement of the Karen National Union (KNU)—the principal Karen non-state armed group resisting Burmese military assimilation of their homelands—in camp affairs. Some portrayed this as “naïve, even negligent, for enabling refugee militarization,” helping to “consolidate the power of a KNU elite,” and contributing “to prolonging the conflict.”

When the refugee story began 30 years ago, there was little international understanding of or sympathy for the ethnic struggle in Burma. Even as awareness grew in the 1990s (as demonstrated by Annual UN Security Council Resolutions calling for tripartite negotiations between the junta, the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi, and the ethnic nationalities), the reality was that there was still little empathy for the non-state actors involved in the struggle for self-determination, and in whose areas of control most of the displaced people lived.

McConnachie explains that “ensuring ‘the civilian character of refugee camps’ is a global policy concern of UNHCR and these allegations of militarization in Thailand prompted donors to demand more transparency and oversight of camp management.”

It was more serious than that. In 2007, some donors (fortunately not all) began to question the credibility of the self-governing model, contesting the idea that any refugee-support program could be based on trust. All aspects of the program were aggressively challenged and serious doubts were expressed about its accountability. The European Union, until then TBC’s largest donor, began to reduce funding and, with falling Western exchange rates and increasing rice prices after the 2007/8 global financial and food crises, TBC was forced to start cutting basic refugee support.

McConnachie acknowledges the challenge of KNU influence and explores the mainly anecdotal evidence put forward to support it. She concludes that the KNU’s “relationship with the wider refugee population is more complicated than one of simple domination” and that serious accusations “appear to be isolated and exceptional cases.” She makes the crucial observation that the primary obstacle to UNHCR accepting a role for non-state actors “appears to be the potential for abuse of power, forced recruitment or military domination rather than its actual occurrence.”

It was difficult for TBC to defend the accusations at the time because, indeed, the model was largely based on trust. Its response was, over the next few years, to improved databases, stock controls, monitoring procedures and governance practices based on international “best practice.” These reforms enhanced the efficiency and accountability of the program and, most importantly, the increased scrutiny never uncovered any serious malpractice. This was a joint exercise with the refugee and camp committees and, from TBC’s perspective, their understanding and industrious response once again vindicated the model and confirmed that trust had always been well placed.

“Governing Refugees” includes insightful information about the KNU and their relationship with the refugees and a fascinating and sensitive study of Karen moral standards and their traditional justice system. There are also illuminating insights into the way refugees view the international aid community, including their mandates and standards.

McConnachie sympathetically explores the conflicts that arose with the international community when attempting to harmonize camp rules with Thai law and offers a challenging personal “tentative counter-critique,” one of the focuses of her work.

But, in responding to doubts and criticisms which threatened the sustainability of the aid programs, it is her de-demonization of the non-state actors and her eloquent research on the strengths of the unique self-governance model challenging conventional international practice that is most welcome.

As TBC understood all along, the refugees are not just powerless victims and the non-state actors do have positive roles to play. Ironically, it has been the willingness of the Burmese government’s Minister Aung Min to negotiate ceasefires and open the way for political dialogue with the non-state armed groups that has at last confirmed their legitimacy as important parties in determining Burma’s political future—something the international community has been reluctant to recognize.

McConnachie suggests that “Rather than rejecting the simple possibility that ‘non-state actors’ can also be legitimate governance actors, a more productive approach would be to openly acknowledge their role and use this as a baseline to negotiate terms and techniques of governance.”

“Governing Refugees” shows that the refugee self-governance model on the Thai-Burmese border was successful. Yet it might never have happened had UNHCR been invited to lead the relief response at the outset, since its mandate is “entirely non-political” and its primary orientation is towards state governments.

The Thai-Burmese border experience therefore merits careful study for relevance elsewhere. In spite of its academic camouflage, McConnachie’s book provides an excellent and balanced starting point for discussion and debate.

Jack Dunford was the executive director of the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBC) from 1984 to 2012.