Sunday, February 28, 2010

Myanmar’s Refugees On The Run With Nowhere To Go

A year ago, the world was shocked by images of boatloads of ethnic Rohingya refugees from Myanmar being pushed out to open sea off the Thailand coast to fend for themselves with little food or water.

The plight of the Muslim Rohingya boat people from Myanmar's northern Rakhine State galvanized international attention, and highlighted a refugee crisis that seemingly has become part of the region's geopolitical make-up.

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Myanmar is the largest source of refugees in Southeast Asia; globally, it ranked 13th behind Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia at end-2008.

In what is described by the UN and specialists as one of the world's most intractable refugee situations, people have been fleeing Myanmar for more than a quarter of a century.

Ethnic conflicts

Analysts say the root causes of Myanmar's refugee exodus lie in the ethnic and political conflicts since independence in 1948 from the British.

Myanmar, with an estimated population of 57.6 million, is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in Southeast Asia.

About two-thirds of the population are ethnic Burmese, while the remainder are Shan, Karen, Rakhine, Chinese, Mon and Indian, as well as the Akha, Chin, Danu, Kachin, Kokang, Lahu, Naga, Palaung, Pao, Rohingya, Tavoyan and Wa peoples. There are about 135 ethnic sub-groups, according to the government.

The minorities live mostly in the hills and mountains bordering Bangladesh, China, India, Laos and Thailand, while the Burmese are found in the central alluvial plains and major towns and cities.

The military, which has ruled Myanmar since 1962, has sought a centralized, unitary state, while ethnic groups want a federal structure and greater independence and autonomy, as well as greater recognition of their cultures.

"The root problem is that the government does not recognize ethnic aspirations and appears to want total military victory. Nothing will improve if that's what they want to do," said Jack Dunford, executive director of the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), which provides food and shelter in nine refugee camps in Thailand, one of 18 NGOs working in the camps.

While several armed ethnic groups have signed ceasefire agreements with the government, there are long-running insurgencies in the country's border regions by groups such as the Karen National Union (KNU).

The insurgencies, the government's counter-insurgency strategies and growing militarization have seen civilian populations increasingly bearing the brunt of the conflict and fleeing.

Forced labour by the military, the forced relocation of villages, enforced disappearances, rape and other forms of sexual violence, torture, arbitrary detentions, and discrimination against ethnic minorities are all cited as concerns in Myanmar by the UN and international rights groups.

Regional action urged

Burmese refugee populations are mainly found in Thailand, Malaysia, Bangladesh and India, though some Rohingya travel as far afield as Saudi Arabia.

The refugees are vulnerable to human traffickers and people smugglers. Where there are no refugee camps, they receive little support and are routinely subject to detention, discrimination, harassment and exploitative working conditions, rights groups say.

None of the main asylum countries in Asia is a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol, leaving Burmese refugees with little protection or recognition of their rights.

Kitty McKinsey, regional spokeswoman for UNHCR, said many Asian countries lacked national refugee legislation, with the result that legitimate asylum seekers and refugees are instead treated as migrants in breach of immigration laws.

Countries "feel the right place for them is in an immigration detention centre. So they quite often put people in detention who we think are asylum seekers and refugees," she said.

With few prospects for change in Myanmar's domestic politics, rights groups have long urged regional governments to exert political pressure on the military government to reform.

"Burma has been like a pressure cooker and the international community has worked [hard] over the past few decades to ease the pressure minimally," said Debbie Stothard, coordinator of the rights group, Altsean-Burma. "There hasn't been the political will to fundamentally resolve the root causes that have pushed people out of Burma."

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which includes Myanmar, has maintained a policy of "constructive engagement" with the country and does brisk trade with it.

Myanmar, rich in natural resources such as oil, gas, and timber, also counts regional superpowers China and India among its allies, helping to buffer international criticism.

"We need to understand holistically that all of these things are connected, that working with the regime for short-term gain or trying to accommodate the regime's misbehaviour for the sake of geopolitical interests entails the cost of receiving asylum seekers and hosting them," said Stothard.

Bali process

Following the incident with the Rohingya boat people last year, ASEAN in March 2009 informally discussed the problem of Rohingya refugees, but found no solution. There were then hopes that a regional conference known as the Bali Process, which largely tackles human trafficking and people smuggling, could address the issue.

"For us it's an achievement that it even got on the agenda because we've been trying to get it on to the international and Asian agenda for years," said UNHCR's McKinsey.

At the Bali conference in April 2009, there was agreement on setting up an ad-hoc working group on the issue. However, little has been made public since about Bali Process discussions, or whether concrete actions will arise from this move.

"Though there are occasional flare-ups in relations, as was the case in the first months of 2009 over Rohingya boat people, these issues have been resolved more by pushing them back under the table than by providing real solutions that could benefit the refugee population," said Camilla Olson, an advocate for the US-based Refugees International.

"After 20 years, regional governments should acknowledge that a policy that ignores Burmese refugees will not make them go away," she said.

"Instead, it has created a new class of largely urban poor, who have few opportunities for education, healthcare, or productive futures."

Donor fatigue

The intractable nature of the emergency is vividly illustrated by nine refugee camps in Thailand along the 1,800km border with Myanmar, where some 150,000 Burmese live. Uniquely, the camps are run by the refugees themselves, with support from NGOs.

The genesis of these camps dates back to 1984, when the military government's bid to seize more control of areas in the east sent the first large influx of 10,000 mainly Karen refugees into Thailand.

The camps still exist, and with little end in sight to the flow of refugees, aid workers say the needs are greater than ever.

"We have had new refugees arriving every day for the last 25 years," said TBBC's Dunford. "We are dealing with an ongoing emergency, not something static."

Dunford said there was donor fatigue after so long, and few prospects that refugees could lead a normal life. Since anyone who ventures outside the camp is considered an illegal migrant, the ability of refugees to pursue productive lives and greater self-reliance by seeking employment or other activities is limited.

"As we go into 2010, our budgets are going up, the numbers [of refugees] are going up and we have this pressure now from donors wanting to see change," he said.

"We also want to see change, and in particular for the refugees to be more self-reliant. But change will take time, particularly when the Royal Thai Government is concerned about creating a pull factor by improving refugees' quality of life."

Dunford said that in the short term, additional funds were needed to support livelihood initiatives before basic support could be reduced.

Resettlement prospects

There are three solutions to any refugee crisis, says UNHCR: voluntary repatriation to the country of origin, integration into the asylum country, and resettlement in a third country as a final measure.

Recognizing that voluntary repatriation is not a real option, and that settling in asylum countries such as Thailand is difficult, donor countries have offered in recent years to resettle thousands of Burmese refugees.

Since 2004, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has helped to resettled more than 57,000 Burmese refugees from Thailand who belonged to the Karen and Karenni ethnic groups. They were mostly resettled in the US, as well as Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

Michiko Ito, assistant resettlement coordinator with IOM in Bangkok, said countries would continue to be interested in resettling Burmese refugees, but that there was a shift away from accepting refugees out of Thailand, which had "peaked".

"The number out of Malaysia will definitely go up. And the resettlement countries are also looking into the resettlement of Rohingyas out of Bangladesh," said Ito.

Thailand has peaked because resettlement countries look at refugees' living conditions, and the camps provide better help than in Malaysia or Bangladesh, where refugee populations have little assistance, she said.

"In Malaysia, they are living in urban settings and there is absolutely no protection mechanism available for them," said Ito.