MAE HONG SON, Northern Thailand — The final deadline for eligible applicants for UN group resettlement to third countries for Burmese refugees on the Thai-Burma border will be sometime in late January 2014, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Vivian Tan, the spokeswoman for the UNHCR in Asia, told The Irrawaddy that eight years after the program began in 2005, and with the departure of tens of thousands of refugees to the United States since then, the number of eligible refugees is dwindling.
“The number of refugees expressing interest in this program has decreased in recent years, signaling a natural end to the program,” Tan said.
The United States first announced to camp residents in January 2013 that the group resettlement program for registered refugees would begin wrapping up this year, and a camp in Mae La, Thailand, stopped taking new applicants months ago. The announcement was made at different times in different camps, and each camp was given different deadlines for eligible applicants.
There are more than 130,000 Burmese refugees, mostly ethnic Karen who abandoned their homes in eastern Burma and fled to live in refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border in provinces such as Mae Hong Son, Tak and Sangklaburi. Many refugees have been living in these camps for more than 20 years.
Since the installation of a quasi-civilian government led by President Thein Sein in 2011, peace talks between the government and more than a dozen ethnic minority rebel groups have been a priority of the Thein Sein administration. The peace push has yielded results, with the government signing ceasefire agreements with all but two of the country’s major ethnic armed groups.
But the “peace dividend” for refugees on the Thai-Burma border has taken the form of decreasing humanitarian support amid a growing call by some for the refugees to be repatriated to their homelands.
Tan, however, said that even after the group resettlement program comes to an end, eligible refugees will still be able to express interest in individual resettlement to the United States and other third countries. “Thus, this is not the end of resettlement per se, just the end of the group resettlement program to the US,” she added.
“Eligible refugees are given several months to decide if they wished to avail of the group resettlement option. The US authorities have said the program will continue until they have processed every application received by the deadline for each camp,” said Tan.
However, the US Embassy in Rangoon denied the discontinuation of any resettlement program. According to an official at the embassy, the refugees’ admission program is ongoing and there is no halt to the processing of Burmese refugees.
“In fact the continuation of this program was specifically highlighted, as Burmese refugees continue to constitute one of our largest groups being resettled in the United States,” said the official, who asked for anonymity and did not specify whether the program referred to involved group or individual resettlement.
The official said that for the 2013-14 fiscal year, US President Barack Obama authorized the admission of up to 70,000 refugees from around the world. The top five nationalities resettled to the United States in 2013 were Iraqi, Burmese, Bhutanese, Somali and Cuban.
The United States is one of several countries participating in the program, which according to the UNHCR has so far resettled 80,000 refugees to the United States, Canada, Australia and several European countries as well as Japan.
The Border Consortium (TBC), a non-profit organization that has been providing food aid and shelter to the Burmese refugees for more than 20 years, also expressed concern over the reduction in financial support from international donors.
Mike Bruce, a spokesman for the TBC, said funding for humanitarian assistance has been reduced, with the impact of this manifested in recent ration changes.
“Rice rations are being revised in refugee camps in Thailand following reductions in funding for humanitarian food aid and a transition to needs-based and community-managed humanitarian relief,” said Bruce.
Households in refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border are now categorized as “Most Vulnerable,” “Vulnerable,” “Standard,” or “Self-Reliant.” Standard categorized households have seen a change in the rice provided for adults, and Self-Reliant households no longer receive food assistance for adults over 18 years of age, according to the officer.
In talks with more than a dozen refugees on the Thai-Burma border, The Irrawaddy was told that the shrinking financial support had made day-to-day life more difficult, between the rations cuts and a reduction in construction materials used to repair makeshift homes of bamboo and straw.
Refugees are scrambling to apply for group resettlement ahead of the program’s anticipated termination, they said.
Resettlement in third countries was the most appropriate option for them, refugees said, with uncertainty over what they might return to in Burma making that option less appealing, and their continued existence in the refugee camps made more challenging by dwindling financial support.