Boxed in the Bordertown

Mar 30, 2011
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Thailand’s border camp population remains constant despite third country resettlement.

557 Burmese woman and child at a refugee centre in the Thai border town of Mae Sot in early November 2010 (Photo credit: Chander Vandergrift/IRIN)


The population of the nine refugee camps along the Myanmar-Thai border in Thailand, which have been in existence for more than 20 years, is relatively stable, despite 11,086 refugees being resettled in third countries over the past year, according to the Thai Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), an umbrella group of NGOs working along the border.

The number of those being resettled is more or less matched by births in the camps and new refugees, said the latest TBBC report covering July-December 2010, which put the camp population at 141,076, including 57,915 unregistered people.

Since 2005, over 58,000 refugees have been resettled in third countries. "Resettlement features prominently in UNHCR’s [the UN Refugee Agency’s] strategic plan for assisting Myanmar refugees in Thailand," says UNHCR.

"Many Burmese asylum-seekers would prefer to stay [in the camps] if they were allowed to earn a livelihood, settle in, and live peacefully. They seek resettlement reluctantly because they cannot stay safely. They are vulnerable to arbitrary detention, and lack freedom of movement and educational opportunities," said Stothard.

Some 10,000 new asylum-seekers have arrived in the camps since the November 2010 elections in Myanmar, according to TBBC.

The camps have become cramped, jobs are few, and donors and NGOs have now decided to switch some of their funding away from humanitarian to development projects.

The camps promise a safe haven for asylum-seekers fleeing fighting and violence in Myanmar. But they have become cramped, jobs are few, and donors and NGOs have now decided to switch some of their funding away from humanitarian to development projects.

“We are providing the same funding on humanitarian assistance, but making a gradual shift from humanitarian assistance to more developmental projects,” said Mathias Eick, regional information officer with the European Commission Humanitarian Aid department (ECHO). ECHO is re-prioritizing aid to the camps and "seeking more durable solutions instead of just continuing humanitarian aid, because it is not a temporary situation," he said.

This year ECHO plans to allocate US$11,240,000 to humanitarian assistance, and $5,620,000 to pilot projects for agricultural development and vocational training, including hairdressing, weaving and computer technology.


Enhancing self-reliance

While the programmes aim to enhance self-reliance, they are not yet cost-effective. “The livelihoods projects are currently income-saving rather than generating,” said Sally Thompson, deputy executive director of the Thai Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), an umbrella group of NGOs working along the border.

"The reality is that refugees have been in Thailand for over five decades... We should be working towards long-term solutions to address push factors and to find a way for them to stay that is effective for both the Thai community and the people," said Debbie Stothard, coordinator of the Bangkok-based rights advocacy NGO Altsean-Burma.

"People being warehoused the way they are now is untenable," she said. It is a question of human dignity because people deserve to have knowledge, skills and opportunities to be economically empowered. If they resettle or integrate into a society in the future, they will need to have skills to support themselves, Eick said.

"When Burma enters transition, the people in the camps will be resources to kick-start community development," Stothard added.

“The courses are so popular, especially among the young generation, that they have to rotate to give more people the opportunity,” Eick said.

EU Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva met Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya on March 14 to discuss “the Thai government's active work on improving refugees' access to education, justice and economic activities”. She stressed the importance of “moving from hand-out relief to sustainable livelihood solutions for the refugees".

With continuing rights abuses by the military regime against ethnic civilians, return to Myanmar in the foreseeable future is highly unlikely for the refugees.

Since 1995 ECHO has provided over 103 million euros (US$144,715,000) in humanitarian assistance to the camps in the form of rations, medical aid, water and sanitation. The European Union (ECHO and individual states) provides more than half of all humanitarian and development aid to the camps.


This post was first published in IRIN in March 2011.

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