Guest Column

Unrecognized and Forgotten: Refugee Youth in Burma’s Transition

By Leena Zieger 11 March 2017

The changes in Burma’s political landscape have affected the country’s population in varying ways.

Among the less fortunate citizens are tens of thousands of young refugees whose concerns and qualifications continue to be sidelined in the country’s reform process.

Thousands of youth live in limbo along the Thailand-Burma border, where decline in donor funding has adversely impacted the refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) whose lives depend on international assistance and services provided by local ethnic organizations.

Most of the displaced populations are ethnic Karen who fled armed conflict and human rights abuses committed by the Burma Army over several decades.

In addition to declining support, another major blow for around 100,000 refugees who remain in the Thai camps has been the growing expectation that refugees will soon return to their homeland, reinforced by developments such as the US government wrapping up their group resettlement program in 2014.

Despite conditions on the ground indicating that timing is not right for a safe and dignified return, repatriation plans are in full swing.

For many youth, the refugee camp is the only home they have ever known. As life in the camps and future prospects for camp residents have become grim during the past few years, local organizations have documented a sharp increase in camp suicide rates especially among youth.

Stress, drugs, and alcohol have been blamed for the troubling trend. Other concerning social trends on the rise among the youth include growing school dropout rates and teenage marriages.

With growing pressures to return, refugees seek information about the situation on the ground in southeast Burma. While there has been less fighting and direct attacks on civilians since the Karen National Union (KNU) signed a bilateral ceasefire in 2012, land grabbing has increased and the Burma Army has fortified its position next to Karen villages.

Add the uncertain peace process and full-blown war in Burma’s north coupled with sporadic conflict and lands riddled with landmines and one can begin to understand the tip of the massive iceberg constituting refugees’ concerns about returning.

Over the years that refugees have kept fleeing across the border to Thailand, the area has become a vibrant hub for capacity building initiatives including higher education programs.

To this day, these programs bring together a mix of young ethnic refugees who live together and learn about their country’s multi-ethnic history alongside subjects such as human rights, peace building, and community development.

Unlike within the state education system, teaching is student centered with an emphasis on developing the skills for lifelong learning and independent and critical analysis of information.

For refugee youth, an additional impediment to any meaningful definition of the voluntary return is the lack of accreditation for refugee education certificates. Despite the high quality of education along the border, refugee education is still by and large unrecognized in Burma and almost everywhere in the world.

Although there are a few important exceptions providing refugee students the channels they need to access universities in third countries, and some advances are being made toward student recognition in Burma, these initiatives currently reach only a fraction of the students.

Most refugee youth aspiring to continue their education see their dreams blocked by requirements such as having a 10th standard certificate from a government school, while certificates from the camps and the border area, including post-ten level (12th standard) certificates and even post-post-ten level certificates are usually not accepted.

Meanwhile, certificates from Burma—where the education system desperately needs a complete reform—receives international recognition.

As well as being blocked by the requirements of most international institutions, recognizing refugee education was not on the agenda for the recently launched national education plan setting strategic directions for Burma’s educational reform over the next five years.

This means that refugee youth could remain excluded from the educational reform process for at least half of the next decade, a critical time as no one knows when the camps will ultimately close down.

The youth along the border not only deserve accreditation for their high-quality education and years of work, but if the Burmese government does not recognize and appreciate the vast human resources on the borderline, they risk sidelining a pool of dedicated and competent future leaders and peace builders.

Many youth on the border come from villages that have been burned to the ground and from families that have endured persecution for generations. With their first-hand experiences of the conflict and personal motivations for achieving sustainable peace, the youth would undoubtedly have much to offer to Burma’s peace process and the ongoing reform process.

Currently the displaced populations along the Thailand-Burma border, including highly educated youth, continue to be sidelined if not outright excluded from the country’s transition.

For genuine national reconciliation, it is imperative that youth from conflict-affected communities are included in the process by consistently having refugee-led youth organizations participating in stakeholder meetings, including the Union Peace Conferences, and having refugee education recognized by the Ministry of Education and national higher education institutions.

While most refugee youth feel the time is not right to return for numerous reasons, refugee youth should have a chance to participate in the processes that directly impact their future.

Until a meaningful voluntary return of refugees and other displaced populations is possible, and refugee education is recognized by national and international institutions, it is vital that international community continues to support refugees and education along the border.

Leena Zieger is the Founder and International Coordinator of Burma Link, a non-profit organization advocating for the rights of Burma’s ethnic nationalities and conflict-affected communities.

Burma Link launched a joint documentary film “Unrecognized Leaders, Tomorrow’s Hope: Raising the Voices of Forgotten Youth” with the Karen Student Network Group and Karen Youth Organization online on March 10, 2017 The film was originally launched at a press conference in Rangoon on Feb. 22.