Myanmar’s Karen Displaced in a Quagmire

Long-time refugees on the Thai-Myanmar border face cuts in rations but say they cannot return to areas where fighting is ongoing.

International aid for refugees and displaced people in camps on the Thai-Myanmar border has been slashed since Myanmar’s first supposedly democratic government was elected four years ago. The assumption underpinning this cut in funding was that conditions are, or soon will be, safe for refugees to return to their homes.

However, many of the Karen refugees and displaced people who returned to their original areas in the years following the election have struggled to re-establish livelihoods amid continued land grabs by the government and military. In the last 12 months, armed conflict in southeastern Myanmar has also increased, forcing thousands of recently returned villagers to flee their homes once more.

This correspondent traveled to the Thai-Myanmar border and spoke to people living in camps for refugees and displaced people who are weighing the near-impossible choice between returning home to villages that remain unsafe or finding new ways to survive as the international support that has sustained them for years is cut back.

‘When you see them is when you die’

Notheney misses her children every day. The bamboo hut she lives in is only a few square meters wide, but to her it feels empty. Once it was filled with raucous screams, laughter and the tears of eight children, but now only Notheney and her husband remain.

It’s Boxing Day in Ei Tu Hta camp and a Christmas carol is playing through the camp’s public address system. Scores of children are mulling around the dusty football field, preparing for the second day of the annual competition that camp leaders hold to celebrate the festive season.

Notheney’s children would have been there too, giggling and kicking the ball around with the others, had they been able to remain with her in Ei Tu Hta. When food support and school funding ceased in 2017, she was forced to split them up and send them away, unable to ensure their survival in the camp any longer.

Ei Tu Hta is a camp for IDPs – internally displaced people – nestled on the Myanmar side of the Salween River, a natural barrier that forms part of the border with Thailand. Established in 2006 after a series of large-scale military offensives in Karen State, it is currently home to just over 2,500 people.

The conflict between Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, and the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) is the world’s longest-running civil war, having dragged on for over 70 years. Karen civilians were murdered for any association with the KNLA, until an uneasy ceasefire was signed in 2012. Women were raped, children killed in front of their parent’s and villagers used as human minesweepers, rights groups have documented.

Notheney remembers fleeing her home as a 15-year old girl. “When we heard the Burmese were coming, we had to run straight away. The Burma Army followed us, and we could hear them shooting at us as we fled.” Her parents told her not to look back. There was a saying she learned about the Tatmadaw when fleeing: “The time you see them is the time you die.”

Saw Soe Ku, the camp’s newly elected leader, was nine when his family fled in 1993. He remembers the fear he felt seeing all of his friends and family rushing to pack their things as gunfire and explosions roared in the distance. “Injured soldiers were being carried through the village… and I was wondering, are we going to die? How can we escape from this situation?”

He was most worried about his older brother, who helped stretcher injured Karen soldiers to safety while the Tatmadaw targeted them with mortars. Notheney and Saw Soe Ku’s families trekked through the jungle for days, going from campsite to campsite till they eventually found safety and built homes in Ei Tu Hta.

Stories like these are not rare. There are at least five formal IDP camps like Ei Tu Hta in southeastern Myanmar, and thousands of smaller settlements and camps where displaced villagers seek shelter from conflict.

The UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar said that, as of January 2019, there were around 162,000 displaced people in the country’s southeast, living in camps or scattered throughout rural communities. Over the border in Thailand, the UNHCR says there are a further 97,439 refugees, mainly Karen, in nine camps between Mae Hong Son in the north to Kanchanaburi (just west of Bangkok).

It is hot in Ei Tu Hta, and the air is thick with dust. Chickens and dogs roam freely. A thin stream runs through the middle of the camp, flanked by crops that camp leaders are desperately trying to keep alive through the dry season in an effort to supplement their ailing rice supplies with tomatoes, potatoes and lettuce.

Up till September 2017, a non-government group called The Border Consortium (TBC) provided food and key services to Ei Tu Hta. TBC is funded primarily by US and UK foreign aid programs. But with Western governments reducing aid budgets and redirecting support from the border to government-controlled parts of Myanmar, USAID’s funding agreement with TBC was not renewed and the UK Department for International Development slashed its backing by 40%. This forced TBC to make the difficult decision to cut support to Ei Tu Hta entirely, prioritizing its limited resources to refugee camps on the Thai side of the border where the populations are larger.

For the residents of Ei Tu Hta, this meant food rations going from insufficient to non-existent. They’re now on their own, relying entirely on what they can grow, and rice given to them by neighboring villages or acquired with funds donated by Karen refugees who have resettled in the West. TBC says to have recently fundraised successfully in order to maintain food access for children under five in the camp, but for the remaining population, the situation remains dire.

When they heard that food support would end, residents knew they had to put their children first. “Kids should be with their mother,” Notheney said, “but it was an easy decision to send them away, even if it makes me upset.” Three of the children were orphans whose parents were killed in fighting or fleeing as the Tatmadaw advanced.

Notheney had taken them in, caring and loving them as if they were her own. But for the second time in their lives, those children had to say goodbye to their parents for reasons beyond their control. All cried uncontrollably as they were split up and smuggled into Thai refugee camps across the border. Tears collect at the edges of Notheney’s eyes as she recalls their goodbyes.

‘I feel like I can’t help them’
Camp leader Saw Soe Ku said Notheney’s experience was not uncommon. Many families in Ei Tu Hta who had relatives in camps across the border were forced to send their children away – so they could get a proper education and to protect them from rising rates of malnutrition.

TBC reports malnutrition among children, particularly those under 5, is increasing in the camp. Currently, approximately 7.5% of children in IDP camps along the border suffer from acute malnutrition. When this is severe, which it is for 2.4% of children in the camp, UNICEF suggests it can be life-threatening, leaving a child ‘frail and skeletal.’ Chronic malnutrition is even more widespread, affecting over a third of children in the camps. This stunts the physical and intellectual development of children affected and can be considered a precursor to ‘wasting’ from acute malnutrition. For parents like Notheney who are faced with watching their children waste away in front of their eyes, it is hardly surprising they decided to send them somewhere where they might have even a marginally better chance at survival.

The head of Ei Tu Hta’s ‘clinic’, Saw Mya Ku, saw a rise in the number of children between six months and five years old who suffer malnutrition because of the ration cuts. A recent TBC report laments the group’s inability to respond to the needs of these children and notes that although Karen organizations and private donors have offered assistance, “the need for a comprehensive response remains.” But without international funding being restored, it seems likely that conditions will continue to deteriorate – and these children will be the first victims.
The withdrawal of aid has led to increasing numbers of patients for Saw Mya Ku and his team, as well as a drop in the amount of medicine and equipment available with which to treat them. In 2016 and 2017, local organizations filled the gap left by international donors. But they too have now left and Saw Mya Ku and his 18 medics are on their own. The Mother and Child Vaccination program has been completely defunded.

The hospital lacks a stethoscope and basic antibiotics. Saw Mya Ku does all he can to help the patients presented to him, but all too often there’s nothing he can do. In the wet season, when the mosquitos thrive and malaria and dengue fever hit, he is quickly overwhelmed. “When the serious patients come,” Mya Ku says in a soft voice, staring at the floor, “I feel like I can’t help them.”

For serious cases, he will send patients across the border to give them a chance at treatment in one of the better-equipped camps, but recently they have been getting sent back. It is a long journey up the Salween River to Thailand, and such trips are relatively expensive and illegal. They are currently trying to raise funds to send a two-year-old across the border for medical attention.

But even if the child’s family and camp leaders secure the necessary funds, there is no guarantee of treatment in Thailand. If Thai refugee camps lack the staff or equipment to help, the child may simply be sent back.

For people in Ei Tu Hta like Notheney and Mya Ku, the nine camps across the border in Thailand promise improved living conditions for their children and patients. However, refugees in these camps face similar challenges. They have also suffered ration cuts and service withdrawals since 2016, as international NGOs and governments redirect funding to government-controlled areas of Myanmar since the election.

Bwe Say is secretary of the Karen Refugee Committee (KRC), a representative body coordinating services in the camps and acting as a ‘bridge’ to advocate their needs to the Thai and Myanmar governments, plus UNHCR and the international community. He said funding for camp administration was the first thing they began cutting in 2016. But with that cut back to the bone, “they’re looking more at rice and charcoal.” While Bwe Say thought it likely there would be further cuts in 2019, TBC has since confirmed rations for refugees in Thailand will remain at current levels for at least the next year.

Rations are barely sufficient as it is, while TBC has lost nearly half its funding between the start of Myanmar’s “democratic” transition in 2010 and 2016. At the end of 2017, the Swedish and Norwegian governments withdrew all their support for the camps. The monthly ration has fallen from 15kg of rice per adult in 2010 to less than 9kg in recent years. By 2015, Zach Hudson, an international law professor, suggests the total kilocalorie intake provided was already almost 40% below the minimum international standard. The current rate of chronic malnutrition among children in the camps is a troubling 31.8%, although this actually represents a significant decrease since 2011 due to the joint efforts of camp leaders and organisations like TBC in addressing this.

Bwe Say said those most affected by the new cuts would not be the “most vulnerable”, but people such teachers and health workers. This was “very dangerous”. He feared that if the cuts go ahead as planned, many would be forced to return to Myanmar via the UNHCR’s repatriation program. “If the skilled people leave then all the services will be affected, and … the refugee community will be affected. This is a big worry.”

Naw Dah Ler and Nah Di could be in the firing like at the Umpiem and Mae La camps, respectively. Naw Dah Ler is employed by TBC, while Nah Di is a teacher. At current levels, camp rations are “just enough to survive.” Nah Di says having an income makes her privileged – “I can eat two meals per day. Not everyone is able to do that … I can top up my rations with vegetables I find and purchase from inside the camps.”

Mae La is seen as better off than many of the other camps because it has a variety of shops where refugees can buy supplies to top up their rations. For Naw Dah Ler and Nah Di, their wages and rations are the bare minimum they need to keep their families alive and healthy. But as Western NGOs pull out of the camps, the availability of jobs like Naw Dah Ler’s with foreign NGOs is dwindling. Nah Di said when organizations leave “it means we are jobless and have nothing to do.”

Sneaking out to survive
Working outside the camps in the Thai community has become more risky. Human Rights Watch (HRW) says Thailand has always been a “reluctant host” to Karen refugees, having never signed the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol. And since the coup in 2014, the ability to move in and out of the camps is now tightly restricted.

To legally leave the camp, refugees like Naw Dah Ler and Nah Di must apply to the Thai authorities for a pass that might grant them permission to leave for roughly three to 10 days. This process can take a long time and usually costs 200 to 500 baht (US$6.25 to $15.60). For Naw Dah Ler, that’s a month’s wages. Even if they get permission to leave for a number of days, refugees have no work rights in Thailand and are thus frequently subject to exploitation, or what HRW calls “dangerous and degrading” work with no guarantee of a living wage.

The lack of work and ever-decreasing rations means that refugees are increasingly being forced to sneak out of camp to make ends meet. Bwe Say says: “Refugees will have to find other ways to survive … Maybe they will try and go out to cut wood or bamboo to sell and make money, which would break Thai laws and create a risky situation for the refugee community.”

Nah Di said she frequently sneaks out to supplement her plunging rice rations. “Sometimes I sneak out and go foraging in the forest to get vegetables and things to eat.” She has never been caught but is aware the penalties for doing this could be severe.

International legal scholar Zach Hudson has documented Thai authorities setting up surprise checkpoints and making regular arrests. Refugees may be subject to indefinite detention unless they pay a bribe of anywhere between 1,000 and 4,000 baht. For Nah Di, this would be more than her entire savings. She said people caught outside the camp “have to do labor [in the camp] as punishment.”

That includes work in officials’ offices, cleaning or doing repairs. “They will also cut your rations for one month. I have seen officials yelling at mothers who have gone out to find food for their families. I feel bad for them.” There has been a rise in cases of theft within the camps in recent years. Nah Di no longer feels safe in her home. “I had my computer stolen recently. They even steal things like charcoal.”

‘Stranglehold refoulement’
Hudson said the Thai authorities and international community are guilty of what he calls “stranglehold refoulement” – the combination of deteriorating camp conditions and restrictions on refugees’ freedom of movement and ability to work is forcing people to return to Myanmar before it is safe to do so. “Repatriation in this manner is not truly voluntary, but is instead a form of constructively forced return,” he wrote.

Naw Dah Ler said: “Some people go back to [Myanmar] because they have problems with rations and because they don’t have income, they can’t stay in the camp anymore… [they feel] indirect pressure.”

Camps were first set up on the Thai border in the mid-80s. Tens of thousands of people have been resettled in the US and many other countries. Bwe Say said: “We have been in Thailand for a long time, so maybe they want us to go back. But they are not forcing us back… the things that are indirectly pushing us back are the funding support to the camp.”

UNHCR did not respond to requests for comment for this article, but in a 2017 interview with Karen News, Peter Trotter from UNHCR argued that budget cuts are not pushing refugees to repatriate in a way that constitutes refoulement – forced return. He said: “There’s no indication that the Thai government is interested in forcibly moving people to the other side of the border. The funding situation isn’t targeted at individuals or particular situations, it’s global decisions made in multiple state capitals about where their money is needed the most.”

The UN refugee agency has encouraged international donors to direct their aid budgets towards development in Myanmar as it believes this will provide the best long-term outcomes for refugees and the displaced. Trotter said many of the refugees in the camps were there “not because they were fleeing conflict or persecution, but because there are services available there that aren’t available in south-eastern Myanmar.”

Few have taken cash offer to return
The problem for refugees in the camps now though, is that these services still aren’t available in Myanmar despite increased international aid. Yet their food rations continue to be cut nonetheless. So, refugees now have to decide whether to return to Myanmar or stay in the camps and somehow survive with a lack of food, healthcare, education and other essential services.

“I cannot decide whether to go back or stay here,” Naw Dah Ler said. TBC says at least 18,000 refugees have returned to Myanmar since 2012. The UNHCR has set up Voluntary Repatriation Centers in the Thai camps to provide information and support for refugees wishing to return. Those that decide to go through this official channel, rather than return privately, get a cash grant from UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration and the World Food Program.
Since 2016, 729 individuals have been repatriated via this process. Bwe Say says this tempts refugees to return but conditions in Myanmar are not truly safe. “Looking at the political situation, for sure it is not the right time to return…”

In 2017, Trotter said: “Shots haven’t been fired in anger [in Karen State] in a very long time.” But over the last 12 months, conflict in southeastern Myanmar has been increasing. In February 2018, in violation of their ceasefire with the KNLA, the Tatmadaw advanced into Hpapun district and conducted clearance operations for the construction of a road. This led to clashes with the KNLA and displaced around 2,400 people.

Sporadic fighting occurred throughout the remainder of the year and there have been at least two clashes this year in Mutraw district. The Tatmadaw fired up to 90 mortar shells into civilian areas in Lu Thaw Township in January, which led the UN Special Rapporteur to conclude that “insecurity in Southeast Myanmar undermines prospects for their [IDPs] sustainable return, as it also does for those living in the Thai border refugee camps.”

For refugees and IDPs who have had family members killed by the Tatmadaw or experienced violence directly, returning to a situation where civilians continue to be targeted is unfeasible. The Karen Peace Support Network interviewed refugees and displaced persons who had left the camps and returned home, only to be forced to flee again during the February 2018 fighting.

One IDP said: “We heard there is a ceasefire, so we returned to our village. Now we heard the [Myanmar] Army will come again, how could we stay? We thought things would get better after the ceasefire, but now more Burmese soldiers have come.” Another displaced person said: “If the [Myanmar government] soldiers see either villagers or Karen soldiers, they shoot. So, we ran away.’

Many of these people are deeply traumatized by their experiences. Another IDP claimed: “They captured my cousin, tied her up, tore off her clothes, and then raped her before killing her. We cannot endure this anymore. It makes me very angry. It pains me so much. They killed my husband, my family members, and my relatives.”

So the choice for many Karen in Thailand is stark: fight for survival in the camps as your food sources diminish, or return to a state where the military you fled continues to fight among your villages.

Even if violence was not increasing in southeastern Myanmar, returnees face a number of obstacles to a sustainable return. TBC says these factors include food insecurity, a lack of infrastructure and uncertainty regarding their citizenship rights. Many of the homes and villages that displaced people come from have also been seized by the Myanmar military and government for economic development. Even Karen villagers living on their land face confiscation by armed actors according to the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG).

On March 12 this year, one-third of Myanmar became legally “vacant, fallow and virgin”, meaning it could legally be confiscated despite being occupied by farmers who had lived there under customary tenure for generations. “Several farmers have already been charged with trespassing” and face up to two years in prison for living and working on their own land, KHRG said.

Nah Di’s mother says stories like this keep her from moving back to Myanmar. In Mae La camp she has a home, “and until I got sick, I had a job. I have nothing in Burma.” Naw Dah Ler said: “I don’t have a home in [Myanmar], so I can’t feel like it’s home. The [Myanmar] government doesn’t recognize education we get in the camp and it’s not easy to find jobs in Burma.”

‘Impossible to Imagine’
The strain of weighing potentially life-threatening choices has taken its toll on many refugees and displaced people on the Thai-Myanmar border. In 2017 there were a number of suicides in the Thai camps and the IOM has said the suicide rate is three times the global average.

Bwe Say says the KRC has managed to stem rising rates of depression, but he fears what will happen if things continue to deteriorate. “It was quite high [the suicide rate] in Mae La last year, but in 2018 we can say it has decreased because a lot of awareness and counseling has been targeted [at refugees], including at the household level. So this put the situation on hold.”

He felt people could deal with life as it exists in the camps, but said “the thing they cannot cope with and that leads them to commit suicide is when they’re thinking about the future… that’s something people cannot cope with.”

Nah Di, Notheney, Naw Dah Ler, Bwe Say, Saw Soe Ku and Saw Mya Ku all plan to stay where they are for the next 12 months. However, when asked what they will do beyond that if the situation in the camps continues to deteriorate, they are less certain.

Saw Soe Ku says he will stay in Ei Tu Hta until all Burmese soldiers have left Karen State and the international community can guarantee the situation is safe and that every landmine has been cleared. He wants international organizations “to come and see the situation” in Ei Tu Hta and Karen State “and if we need to wait a certain period of time [before we can return] then they need to support us to do so.”

Notheney, meanwhile, believed that the 2,500 people living in Ei Tu Hta would not survive without extra assistance. “We cannot go and plant [crops] around the area because the Burma military is on either side of the camp. We can do some farming in the camp, but we can’t farm beyond this area. The supporting committee is trying to plant seeds, but we don’t know where to grow it.” She is desperate but refuses to lose hope entirely. “I think God will not abandon us though. God gives me strength.”

Nah Di was less optimistic about a future if ration cuts continue at Mae La camp. “I don’t want to think about that. It’s impossible to imagine what life would be like.” Currently, there is no indication the international community will step in to support the residents of Ei Tu Hta or increase aid to the nine camps in Thailand.

The only positive sign was the 2019 UN Humanitarian Response Plan to help 10,000 IDPs in Karen State improve food security – a lot more than the 6,000 targeted last year, but still meager given the 162,000 in need of support. The plan claims that people in Ei Tu Hta “are being supported by local authorities, community members and UN/NGOs”. Those on the ground though, say such support has largely failed to materialize and is drastically insufficient.

In some ways, the refugees and displaced people’s ability to cling to survival is a double-edged sword. They are desperate but not dying. Their needs are severe, but for the most part not life-threatening yet. In a tragedy-saturated media landscape, a country experiencing ethnic cleansing and a world facing unprecedented refugee crises, people like Notheney and Nah Di struggle to make the news, let alone international aid. Their plea is simple: “We need the world to listen.”

*Thomas Wilkie-Black wrote this story while working in Thailand for Karen News.

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