At a public seminar in Thailand last week, Karen and Karenni officials raised concerns about the increasing pressure for refugees to return from the Thai-Myanmar border as international funding for camps dries up.
“The refugees from the Thai-Myanmar border are not ready to return home,” said Naw Elizabeth, deputy director of the Karenni Education Department, who took part in the September 13 seminar at Chiang Mai University.
“We discussed the need for international donors to continue their support as the refugees’ continue to have basic unmet needs [like] education and health,” she added.
The public event, called “Syria to Myanmar: Who are Refugees?” was organized by the US Embassy in Thailand and Chiang Mai University. About 100 people attended, included members of refugee and internally displaced persons assistance groups like The Border Consortium, the Karen Refugee Committee, the Karenni Education Department and the Shan Women’s Action Network.
Over 100,000 refugees live in nine refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border while over 3,000 Karen IDPs remain at the Ei Tu Hta temporary shelter and over 6,000 Shan IDPs are residing in camps along the Thai-Shan border, according to refugee activists. They added that after the Myanmar government and ethnic armed organizations signed ceasefire agreements and started implementing the peace process beginning in 2011, pressure has escalated for refugees and IDPs to return to their homes. While international aid organizations, swamped with other, fresher crises, are forced to dedicate resources elsewhere, the Myanmar refugees say their needs are increasingly going unmet, while lack of livelihoods in their original villages, and in some cases the threat of landmines and fresh conflict, prevents an easy return.
“The international community does not know the real situation of our refugees. I’m glad to have the chance to explain how the issues occurring at the Karen refugee camps are directly related to Myanmar politics,” said Saw Hayso Thako, an education officer with the Karen Refugee Committee.
According to participants, a foreign student also discussed the ongoing crisis in Rakhine State at the seminar. Over 400,000 Muslim residents have fled over the border to Bangladesh in the past month, while 30,000 Buddhist and Hindu villagers have been internally displaced by fighting between an insurgent group and the Tatmadaw.