Sunday, August 31, 2014

NGO’s say Aid Cuts Pressure Refugees on Thai-Burma Border to Return Home Prematurely

A group of Burma-focused international NGO’s have voiced grave concern that refugees on the Thai-Burma border are being forced to return to Burma prematurely due to deep cuts in international aid.

In a joint statement, the European Burma Network said: “The international community, and in particular the European Union, is pursuing policies which could in effect force refugees from Burma back into the country before it is safe for them to return, and without the support they will need.”

The European Burma Network represents 15 human rights advocacy groups in Europe, including the European Karen Network; Burma Campaign UK; and Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

“Reforms in Burma, including the peace process, have not progressed to a degree where it is safe for refugees to return. Even where ceasefires have been signed, full codes of conduct for the ceasefires have not been agreed,” the statement said, adding that “The Burmese Army is increasing, rather than decreasing, its presence in ethnic states. Human rights violations by the Burmese Army and associated forces, although reduced in some areas, are still taking place. Political dialogue which could lead to a lasting peace has still not begun, and there is little prospect of genuine dialogue starting in the foreseeable future.”

The European Burma Network also slammed the European Union for putting the lives of refugees at risk, saying that “By using cuts in aid to try to force refugees back to Burma, donors such as the European Union are putting refugees at risk of being subject to human rights abuses, landmines, and living in extreme poverty.”

Rations in the refugee camps have been cut recently by The Border Consortium (TBC)—a coalition of NGO’s that has administered aid to the camps for over two decades—as part of its “staged assistance plan.” The latest funding cut in December resulted in rice rations being cut for certain refugee households classified as “self-reliant,” while other households classified as “standard,” “vulnerable,” or “most vulnerable” will not have their rice rations reduced.

The rice rations of “self-reliant” households have been reduced from 12kg per month to 8kg at Umphiem and Mae La, two of the largest camps which collectively house 56,000 refugees. At other refugee camps, TBC reduced the rice rations of “self-reliant” households to 10kg per month. However, rice rations for all households at Ban Don Yang camp will remain at 2013 levels.

TBC recently introduced its “staged assistance plan” for rice rations in order to direct more resources from its dwindling budget towards “livelihood programs,” which are designed to increase the self-sufficiency of refugees. However, the European Burma Network’s recent statement criticized TBC’s “livelihood programs,” claiming there isn’t enough funding for the programs to be effective.

“These programs are so underfunded they do not come close to providing adequate programs. It is also wrong for funding to be diverted from providing essentials such as food and shelter. Funding for these programs should be additional to, rather than instead of, providing essentials for survival.”

The European Burma Network also noted that issues such as the return of confiscated land; the de-militarization of eastern Burma; and the clearance of landmines have not been solved yet.

“Many refugees want to return to their home villages, not be forced into special economic zones as the Burmese government proposes. They don’t want to be [used as] cheap labor in factories.”

TBC’s latest figures from March this year noted that 119,000 refugees were currently living in the nine refugee camps located along the Thai-Burma border— 10,000 less than in March 2013. Yet TBC has denied that its programs were designed to force refugees back into Burma.

“TBC wishes to emphasize that these changes are in no way intended to encourage refugees to return to Burma/Myanmar prematurely. TBC, The Union Government of the Republic of Myanmar, the Royal Thai Government, and TBC’s international partners all agree that conditions do not yet exist for the organized return of refugees,” a spokesman from TBC said in an email to Karen News after the most recent ration cuts.