Aid Cuts Puts “Pressure” on a Premature Return for Thai-Burma Border Refugees

A host of international based Burma human rights advocacy organisations have voiced grave concern that refugees on the Thai-Burma border are being forced to return to Burma prematurely because of deep cuts in international aid.

In a joint statement the European Burma Network expressed concern that refugees from Burma residing in Thailand, were being “pressured” to return to Burma prematurely because of cuts to aid.

“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 said in a statement.

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.” European Burma Network said.

“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 slammed the European Union for, they say, putting the lives of refugees at risk.

“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 camps on the Thai-Burma border have been cut over the last two years. The latest funding cut, implemented in December, saw rice rations to refugees classed as part of the ‘standard’ camp population reduced from 12kg per month to 8kg in two of the largest camps – Umphiem and Mae La, together are home to around 56,000 refugees – and 10kg in the other camps with the exception of Ban Don Yang which would remain at 2013 levels.

The Border Consortium (TBC), a coalition of NGO’s that has administered aid to the camps for over two decades, including food rations, has introduced a “staged assistance plan,” classifying refugees according to their level of need from self-reliant, standard, and vulnerable to most vulnerable. Under the plan, those adult refugees considered standard face the full brunt of the rice ration cut, while self-reliant refugees will no longer receive any ration. According to TBC, the plan will take money away from rice and put it into livelihood programmes geared towards increasing the self-sufficiency of refugees.

European Burma Network criticized the livelihood programme, claiming that there was inadequate funding for it to be effective.

“These programmes are so underfunded they do not come close to providing adequate programmes. It is also wrong for funding to be diverted from providing essentials such as food and shelter. Funding for these programmes 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-militarisation of Eastern Burma and the clearance of landmines had 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 cheap labour in factories.”

TBC’s latest figures from March this year noted that 119,000 refugees were currently living in the nine refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border, 10,000 less than in March 2013.

TBC has previously denied that the staged assistance plan was about forcing refugees back into Burma.

“TBC wishes to emphasise 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 organised return of refugees,” a spokesman from TBC said in an email to Karen News when the latest cuts were taking place.

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