Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A door has opened for border refugees

The Nation November 26, 2013 1:00 am

Myanmar is making peace after decades of political strife and war - now is the time to give victims living on the Thai border a future
Political turmoil at home should not distract us from a ripe opportunity to join with Myanmar in seeking solutions for the tens of thousands of refugees who live in camps on the border.

In Nay Pyi Taw last week, the 7th Joint Commission meeting on bilateral cooperation between the two countries touched on the issue, but did not go into detail on what to do with the refugees.

An estimated 140,000 refugees have fled decades-long military and political conflict at home in Myanmar to live in camps on the Thai side of the border. Many arrived after the crackdown on the political uprising in 1988, while others have fled armed conflicts between ethnic groups and the government that have been ongoing for decades. As a result, hundreds if not thousands of children born in the camps live a day-to-day existence, not knowing what their future holds.

Over the past 20 years a small number of refugees have been offered the chance to resettle in the United States, Europe and Australia. But the resettlement list is limited in scale, and the majority has little hope of being provided a permanent home anytime soon.

The law forbids the refugees from doing anything but waiting in the camps. They are not permitted to venture outside to earn a living, but instead must remain dependent on the charity of others - mostly non-governmental organisations and volunteers - for donations of food and necessities. Meanwhile children in the camps get only a brief and basic education. The best they can hope for are classes in reading and writing Burmese and Thai.

However, Myanmar's improving political situation means that now is the time to talk about the refugees' future. In 2011, after decades of military rule, the country's leaders committed to democratic reform. As a result, the government under President Thein Sein has been able to reach peace agreements with many of the armed ethnic groups, including those based along the border with Thailand.

Both the government and the armed groups have assumed responsibility for the fate of the refugees by including plans for their resettlement in the peace process. However, the talks have largely excluded the main stakeholders in this matter - the refugees themselves. For their voice to be heard, separate negotiations should be held in parallel between the refugees and the main participants in the peace talks.

Thai authorities and international refugee-assistance agencies must also be involved in the search for solutions to the plight of border-camp residents.

Experience from the Vietnam War has shown that refugees cannot necessarily return home immediately after a conflict has ended. Their homes and livelihoods are often destroyed in war, leaving them nothing to return to. And 20 years spent languishing in a refugee camp is long enough to forget the skills with which they once earned a living.

Everyone concerned with the border camps should now begin preparations to end a decades-long situation of desperation and return the refugees to normal life. The sooner plans are made, the earlier the refugees can go home.