A public Refugee Seminar held at the Faculty of Social Sciences building at Chiang Mai University on September 18th brought to attention the growing need for support pertaining to both the Burmese and Syrian refugee crisis. It was originally scheduled to take place in a small, more intimate setting with room for about 40 people. However, when more than double the expected amount arrived for this public seminar, it was quickly moved to a lecture hall. There were five different speakers representing NGOs, academics, and ethnic groups (including Karen, Karenni, Shan, and Rohingya). These knowledgeable people worked in completely different facets of refugee aid, but shared a single unifying message: the need for international donations and involvement is higher than ever, especially as these displaced people continue living without their basic needs being met.
The first set of speakers was Zach Ingrasci and Chris Temple, the directors of “Salam Neighbor”. They spent a month inside the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, gaining access for the purpose of shedding light on the unique structure of this particular camp, one of the largest in the world. The Syrian crisis, which has destroyed 80% of the infrastructure of the country, has internally displaced 6.5 million people, and relocated 5 million outside of its borders. Although 80% of refugees don’t seek asylum in camps, the 20% that do flood in large numbers to Za’atari. With arrivals in the thousands coming in nightly, this camp has expanded into nearly a metropolitan area. The UNHCR has allowed this camp to organically form a booming informal economy, with over 3,000 businesses and permanent settlements. Although these refugees face immense hardships daily, the dignity afforded to them by being able to work and build a life for themselves has had a profound impact on their wellbeing. This first presentation set the stage for the potential of what could be done in refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border, as the way these camps are managed differ from that of Za’atari.
As the refugees from Myanmar are beginning to receive a lot of pressure from all sides to return home, few with this notion understand the actual consequences that repatriation would entail for them. As Elizabeth Mimar from the Karenni Refugee Education explained, local communities in Burma already feel the pressure of limited resources, and they are fearful of recurrent conflict if those who have already left opt for voluntary repatriation. To exacerbate their unwillingness further, cases of landmine explosions have been revealed, many have lost access to the land they lived on, and in many areas, fighting has not ceased. Not only this, but as Hayso Thako from the Karen Refugee Committee explained, young people who’ve grown up in refugee camps along the border don’t feel attached to their country. We must take into account that this conflict has been ongoing for 33 years; many young Burmese refugees have never seen “home”. Considering that a little over 50% of refugees are 18 years or younger, it becomes clear that a solution other than repatriation to a violent and alien home must be offered.
However, these concerns don’t even begin to touch on the logistical aspect of returning over 100,000 people currently living in camps. To begin with most broadly, the government of Myanmar has specifically disclosed that they are underprepared to take any refugees back at the moment. Moreover, Charm Tong, one of the founders of Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN), spoke about Shan refugees and outlined how there are plans in action to build five dams on the Salween River, which will effectively flood the homes of the over 300,000 unrecognized refugees in Shan State and the bordering areas. The Thai policy towards the refugees focuses solely on temporary assistance with the goal being repatriation as soon as possible. The US has received only a little more than 25,000 refugees. Many refugees have no sense of home, and no idea what that word will mean for them in the future.
As the refugee count continues to dramatically increase, funds are decelerating at an alarming pace. As Duncan McArthur from the Border Consortium illustrated, only 26% of the humanitarian funds needed have been raised globally. Food aid is set to be cut in many refugee camps beginning October 1st. If the proposed US cut of foreign aid by 36% goes into effect, the ramifications on the refugee crisis in Burma could be altogether detrimental.
The last speaker, Janina Straif from the RCSD M.A. program, spoke on the topic of the Rohingya people in Rakhine state. The conflict between the Muslim Rohingya and the ethnic Rakhine (Arakanese) people inhabiting this region have been occurring for decades, leading up to what the international community has called an attempt at ethnic cleansing. Rohingya people in Myanmar are denied citizenship and the right to vote, along with having economic limitations and movement restrictions. In the last four weeks, over 300,000 have been displaced due to a small number of Muslim insurgent attacks that elicited a violent retaliation from the Burmese army. A common misperception is that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and should be forced to return to their home. However, the Rohingya assert that their families have lived in Rakhine state for generations. Alongside this reason to not return, the Bengali government is refusing access to these peoples. Ms. Straif’s presentation sparked an intense discussion about what can be done to help alleviate the suffering of these refugees.
Although there is no clear cut solution to fixing such a wide scale and underfunded crisis, listening to this seminar gave me a glimpse of hope. I say this because amidst the tension and sometimes outright disagreement occurring, everyone in that auditorium was flooded with compassion and desire to make a real change in the lives of these refugees so close to their home. Though it is increasingly clear that the peace process in Bruma will be slow to solve the various internal conflicts, local organizations and nonprofits have the unique ability to greatly impact the education, health, wellbeing, and stability of the refugees. Through supporting these programs in any way that you can, and broadening education on the topic, there is a foreseeable end to the suffering of millions of our fellow human beings.
Written by: Grace Van Kirk