|Bishop Joseph Phibul Visitnonthachai, head of Thailand’s Catholic Office for Emergency Relief and Refugees|
Bishop Joseph Phibul Visitnonthachai of Nakhon Sawan in Thailand has been executive director of the Catholic Office for Emergency Relief and Refugees (COERR) since 1998.
The organization, established by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Thailand, serves thousands of Myanmar refugees who have fled fighting in their country.
In this interview, Bishop Phibul speaks about the uncertain future these refugees face and the work COERR does in helping them fulfill their human potential.
Q: What kind of support does COERR provide for refugees?
A: COERR started assisting 16,000 refugees fleeing fighting in Myanmar in 1984. It has since continued to be a key partner with 17 NGOs and the UNHCR in addressing the material and security needs of more than 140,000 Myanmar refugees presently living in nine camps along the border.
For the Myanmar refugees in Thailand, COERR operates an integrated program in three strategic areas, namely protection of extremely vulnerable individuals, organic agricultural production and environmental protection, and peace-building.
Q: Does the government support COERR?
A: COERR carries out its programs in the refugee camps with the formal approval of the Thai Ministry of Interior, as required for all NGOs. COERR also coordinates with the ministry’s local officials in protecting the refugees.
In implementing some of our programs, COERR also works with several other government agencies such as the Forest Fire Control Division; the National Park, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department and the Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation.
These agencies have provided us with training and technical advice.
Q: What are the challenges of working with refugees?
|Mae La refugee camp along the Thai-Myanmar border, served by COERR|
A: The basic problem the refugees face is that they are caught in a long-running and unresolved conflict in their home country.
Even after 26 years, there is still no viable large-scale solution in sight for them. They continue to live in a limbo-like existence in the camps.
While they have a safe refuge here, they are not allowed to leave to seek employment outside. As such, they are completely dependent on support from the donor community, through the services of the NGOs, for their survival. The refugees have nothing certain about their future.
The root causes of this problem are inside Myanmar — the continuing armed conflicts, lack of respect for human rights and general widespread instability. For as long as these remain unresolved, Thailand will continue to see an inflow of refugees.
It is very painful for us to see the refugees, especially youths, missing out on opportunities to fulfill their human potential through no fault of their own. Their perception of life and the world are limited by the fences of their camps.
A refugee mother, with tears in her eyes, once said to us, “What can I tell my children to dream about before they go to sleep?”
Q: Has anything changed in the nature of COERR’s work over the years?
A: COERR’s work has been evolving from that of a “relief model” to a “developmental model.” Our humanitarian developmental approach ensures that our current interventions are fully relevant to the dynamics of the situation that Myanmar refugees are in.
The underlying philosophy in all COERR programs is to optimize opportunities for beneficiaries to develop self-help skills and capacities, while pursuing their human potential to the fullest extent possible.
Q: Does COERR have adequate human resources and funding?
|A child at a refugee camp|
A: COERR is very fortunate to have competent and dedicated staff made up of 85 Thais, who work in close partnership with 325 refugees who comprise the camp staff.
The main work of the COERR Thai staff is to transfer knowledge and train camp staff in self-reliance capacity-building to the fullest extent possible.
It has been heartwarming to see the many Thais who are willing to work with us and refugees who want to help themselves and their communities.
Funding is an ongoing challenge though. Donors rightfully expect results and solutions. Moreover there are so many emergencies and disasters around the world that need donor funds.
We have to compete for donor funds, and this can only be successful if we continue to design and operate programs which are relevant, cost-efficient and effective in producing desired results.
Q: Do Thai people have a negative attitude toward refugees and your work with them?
|Refugee children play in a stream at their camp|
A: Although Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, this country has had an outstanding record of providing a safe haven for people fleeing fighting in neighboring countries.
More than two million refugees have come through this country in the past years. Nevertheless, the Thai government has policies that limit the movement and activities of refugees.
Issues related to pollution and competition for forest products come up periodically with Thai villages situated near the refugee camps.
It is important for agencies working with refugees in the camps to also recognize and address the needs of affected Thai villagers in order to avoid or reduce conflict.
Q: What do you expect of upcoming elections in Myanmar?
A: We cannot make predictions about Myanmar, particularly on political matters. Time and again, the generals who run the country have proven to be very unpredictable.
Our most reasonable expectation from the elections, if they are to take place, is that the generals will still have their own way, and the results will be exactly what they want them to be.