US Budget Crisis Hits Home for Burma-Thai Border Refugees

By Saw Yan Naing 18 October 2013

RANGOON — Though Washington has sent its federal employees back to work after a 16-day crisis of governance, Burmese refugees in Thailand who were preparing to resettle in the United States are still finding those plans put on hold a day after most US government services resumed.

Vivian Tan, spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Bangkok, confirmed to The Irrawaddy that resettlement flights have been temporarily suspended due to developments in Washington.

“Our partners working in the resettlement program in Thailand have been informing the affected refugees. Everything should resume once the shutdown is resolved,” Tan said on Thursday.

“Should” being the operative word.

As of Friday, an official at the US Embassy in Rangoon said the program for refugees in camps along the Thai border remained on hold, despite the resumption of most federal government services on Thursday.

“We understand that the program will resume, but I don’t have any further details for you at this time,” the official said, when asked by The Irrawaddy if resolution of the US budget impasse meant the resettlement program would resume.

On Thursday, the US Congress passed a bill that raised the federal debt ceiling and reopened the government. “Nonessential” government services, from the United States’ national parks system to its space exploration program, had been suspended since Oct. 1, when US lawmakers could not muster the votes to continue funding the government. The US refugee resettlement program was also on the list of nonessential services.

There are more than 120,000 Burmese refugees living on the Thai-Burma border in nine refugee camps. About 80,000 Burmese refugees have been settled in third countries in Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia and Japan, with the United States receiving the largest number of resettled Burmese.

Contacted by The Irrawaddy earlier, the US Embassy official said the resettlement program was still operating in a limited capacity.

“The United States has been forced to suspend the majority of refugee arrivals for the duration of the government shutdown. This is because services upon which refugees rely after their arrival are not available in many locations,” the official said on Thursday, adding that the suspension leaves thousands of refugees approved for resettlement sitting in limbo.

“However, we have been able to work with resettlement agencies around the country to continue to bring in the most vulnerable refugees over the coming weeks. State agencies and local communities that are finding ways to assist these refugees despite the shutdown deserve extra recognition for their efforts,” the official added.

Most of the refugees fled Burma due to government army attacks in their home regions. Many of them have been living in refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border for more than two decades.

As reforms have been introduced by the new civilian government of President Thein Sein, foreign donors who have been supporting the refugees for over 20 years have begun to push for their return home.

However, most of the refugees have indicated that they would prefer resettlement to a third country, or to remain in Thailand. According to a survey conducted earlier this month in the largest of the Thai border camps, 90 percent preferred one or both of those options over repatriation, with respondents citing safety and economic concerns, among other worries about starting life anew in Burma.

Recently, The Border Consortium (TBC), an nongovernmental organization that provides food and other services to the refugees, reported that rice rations for many of the refugees would be reduced in the near future due to a reduction in funding for its organization. Under the revised rice rations plan, households are categorized according to their level of need, with four groups: self-reliant, standard, vulnerable and most vulnerable. Self-reliant households will see a cut in rice rations for adults.

The TBC said that the funding for humanitarian work has dropped as donors redirect their funds to programs preparing for the return of refugees to Burma.