David Miliband, the former UK foreign secretary and president of the International Rescue Committee, has urged international donors and investors to ensure refugees living in Thailand are not forgotten amid an increase in engagement with the Myanmar government.
Mr Miliband was speaking at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Bangkok on March 19 after a two-day visit to camps on the border. He said it was important that Myanmar people displaced in Thailand, some of whom left the country more than 30 years ago, are not overlooked. He added the choices refugees make about whether they return to Myanmar would “shape the country”.
“Amid all the change in Myanmar, Burma … this woman [in the camp] said to me, ‘Don’t forget about us.’ And that is a really important message to take away. It would be a double tragedy if the people displaced from Myanmar, Burma, who are now here, are forgotten,” he said.
His comments come at a time when funding is being cut to aid organisations working with Myanmar refugees in Thailand, which they say has affected their ability to provide services.
Mike Bruce, a spokesperson for The Border Consortium (TBC), said that in 2013 the consortium had to transition to a “needs-based rations distribution system, driven largely by cuts to funding”.
“These cuts necessitated the restructuring of refugees’ rations whereby the standard monthly rice ration was cut,” he said.
“While TBC was able to ensure that children and the most vulnerable households do not have their rations reduced, most households are having to cope with a reduction in their rations.”
There are currently about 120,000 refugees living on the border.
While observers have reported a “slow trickle” of refugees returning to Myanmar following recent political reforms, people are still arriving in the camps and Mr Miliband said the majority of refugees do not feel it is the right time to return.
He said “each and every one” of the people he met in the camps had expressed “uncertainty” about the future of the country and “to what extent minority rights would be protected”.
“Quite a number of refugees have been back to see how things are but the access to [basic services such as safe drinking water] are very, very challenging in that part of Myanmar,” Mr Miliband added.
Mr Miliband said he believed that humanitarian efforts were as important as political reform and new investment if Myanmar is to progress successfully. He said, “The advocacy I would make is that we need joint programming on both sides of the border.”
While Mr Miliband declined to comment on what the Myanmar government could do in terms of policies to improve the situation for returning refugees, Mr Bruce said there are many areas that need to be addressed.
“[T]here needs to be real progress on security and justice issues in the South East, issues regarding land ownership and seizures needs to be addressed, infrastructure need to be dramatically improved, and land mines need to be cleared,” he asid.
“There needs to be a durable, lasting peace process, and troop movements throughout the region needs to be reconciled. Ultimately, it is important to note that any framework for return emphasises that return is voluntary, and in conditions that ensure dignity and security.”
Mr Miliband said the focus should be on making choices as “open and effective” as they could be for displaced people when it comes to the possibility of voluntary return.