Migrants have escaped intra-national conflict within Burma by seeking refuge in Thailand for over 30 years.
But recent development projects in eastern Burma have further displaced segments of Burma’s ethnic population, with approximately 150,000 refugees now dispersed throughout nine refugee camps in Thailand. Additionally, an estimated 2–4 million ‘self-settled’ refugees reside in communities along the Thai-Burmese border and in Thailand’s larger cities. Both categories of migrants are referred to as the ‘asylum-migration’ nexus, and represent the visible side of human rights abuse in Burma.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) regards these Thai refugee camps as one of 29 protracted refugee situations in the world, with the Burmese refugees currently living in such camps suffering long-standing human rights abuses. They can often stay in camps for decades with little hope of any long-term solution to their plight, and other migrants from Burma live in constant fear of deportation.
The Burmese refugees in Thailand’s border camps remain dependent on charity for survival, as they do not have freedom of movement. And since they are not integrated into the local community, they cannot work and be self-sufficient either.
Worryingly, if Burmese refugees and migrants maintain their current rate of inflow and departures to third countries, this pool of refugees in Thailand will exist for another 30 years.
Most of the self-settled migrants from Burma work in the manufacturing, food processing and agricultural industries throughout Thailand, contributing 6.2 per cent (US$11 billion) to Thailand’s GDP. Further to the constant fear and threat of deportation, they work in poor conditions with neither basic rights of association, nor employee and health rights. The experiences of these two different groups of forced migrants are liminal in that they are ‘betwixt and between’, excluded from mainstream society. Only some forced migrants choose to officially seek asylum and reside under the protection of UNHCR. Other forced migrants decide to earn a living within the informal economy and endure the risks of being deported. This protracted refugee process means the actual refugee camp populations are made up of women, children, the elderly and disabled, as the able-bodied men and women seek work elsewhere. This ‘left behind’ population is prey to corrupt practices such as people and drug trafficking, smuggling, and child labour. The self-settled group is vulnerable to these practices as well, since they have no effective legal protection.
Globally, asylum seekers and refugees pose huge challenges for the world’s destination countries. Developed countries struggle to maintain a balance between controlling national borders and offering protection to millions of displaced people. Overall, there is a tendency for developed countries to be slow in assessing asylum seekers and letting developing countries bear the burden of cross-border forced migration.
The three durable solutions for refugees are repatriation, integration and resettlement, but there are unique barriers to these solutions for Burmese migrants in Thailand. Repatriation is not feasible, as the Burmese military junta cannot guarantee protection of human rights for Burmese refugees. Integration is resisted because of historical conflicts between Burma and Thailand. In addition, Thailand does not want all the responsibility for Burmese refugees when other developed countries are not sharing the burden. Resettlement to third countries has slowed because of the global financial crisis and amidst fears that terrorists may reside in refugee populations.
Two possible solutions to this situation are ‘sustainable living’ and dealing with forced migrant groups as collectives. Sustainable living involves refugees using their skills to develop self-sufficiency through engagement with local communities and their economy. This integration may be a temporary solution or a durable one. Either way, refugees maintain their dignity and decrease their dependence on aid. Self-settled refugee groups need formal processes to develop sustainable living in order to remove fear of deportation.
Dealing with forced migrant groups as collectives involves the provision of democratic freedoms and responsibility to elect representatives. These representatives in turn determine their communities’ sustainable living options for immediate and short-term outcomes; facilitate self-government in complex and difficult circumstances where resources are scarce; and participate in decision making for long-term outcomes for their communities.
Countries in the Asia Pacific region have the opportunity to address these problems and become leaders in reshaping global migration management by relating to the asylum-migration nexus as responsible actors rather than victims. As responsible actors they can encourage the development of sustainable living and democratic principles of self-organisation, eventually electing representatives and facilitating personal dignity through self-sufficiency. In addition, countries in the Asia Pacific can harness their untapped resources so that refugees become national and international assets rather than burdens.
By Mary Ditton Senior Lecturer in Health Management at the University of New England, Australia. East Asia Forum