March 3, 2017

Thailand-Myanmar Border

Umpiem Mai Camp, one of three refugee camps in Tak Province, Thailand. (Photo: Kevin Jung-Yuan Lee)

The thousands of refugees in the Thailand-Burma border camps have lived in a protracted situation for years, even decades, with no way out. Their prolonged confinement in the camps has created not only many protection concerns but also social and psychological problems. As the Thai authorities have prohibited refugees from travelling, farming, or collecting firewood outside the camps, the refugees’ coping mechanisms have been severely eroded. During the year 2015, TBC reports that around 3,300 people returned to Burma, whilst another 6,297 refugees were resettled to third countries (TBC, 2016a). The population decrease was slightly less than anticipated by the TBC. The UNHCR’s planning figures are substantially higher with the agency’s key figures for 2016 indicating that 45,000 refugees from Burma, nearly half of the camp population, is “targeted to depart through assisted voluntary repatriation” (UNHCR, 2016b). For refugees, life in the camps has recently become more uncertain than ever as there are ongoing significant reductions in aid and food rations given to refugees because international aid has shifted from the border to central Burma; rumours of repatriation are spreading across refugee communities; and increasing travel and living restrictions in the camps have made refugees’ lives even more constrained since the Thai military coup in May 2014 (see e.g. Saw Yan Naing, July, 2014a).

Inside the Karen State in eastern Burma, it is easy to see why thousands cross the border to Thailand to escape impoverishment. In 2010, TBC completed a food security and poverty assessment in the area and reported that over two-thirds of households were not able to meet their basic needs (TBC, 2011). In 2012, TBC found in a comprehensive study that 59% of people on rural southeast Burma were impoverished and 73% lacked access to safe drinking water (TBC, 2012c). Another TBC survey conducted during March and April 2013 (TBC, 2013e) found similar results. These statistics are particularly troubling considering that Burma is a resource rich country where the standard of living for the population should be considerably higher than this. Through economic mismanagement (or deliberate concentration of wealth in the hands of Burmese generals) and military terrorisation of the civilian population, Burma had been transformed from one of the wealthiest southeast Asian countries to one of the poorest, having even been listed as one of the world’s least developed countries in 1987 (Booth, 2003).

Moei Riverside, Thailand-Myanmar Border. (Photo: Kevin Jung-Yuan Lee)

Due to difficulties in entering the camps and the restricted nature of life in the camps, an overwhelming majority of Burma’s exiles, including de facto refugees, live in Thailand as illegal aliens. For generations, they have lived under constant fear of deportation and abuse, trying to build their lives in the peripheries of Thai society, often working in unsafe conditions, underpaid and at risk of exploitation and human trafficking (Green-Rauenhorst et al., 2008). Meanwhile, thousands of refugees have died in the border camps never able to return to their homeland. And all the while, a new generation of refugees has been born in the camps, many of whom have never left the gates of the only home they know. Since 1991, the UN has passed annual resolutions calling on the Burma Government to respect human rights (e.g. UN General Assembly, 2014a, 2015), and whilst the conflict and abuse continues, the EU recently stated that they will abandon the submission of another UN resolution criticising the country’s human rights record (see e.g. Kaspar, September 2016).

Although there is a framework of international principles that recognise and protect the inherent dignity and equal, inalienable rights of humanity, these principals have little significance to refugees from Burma who live in Thailand. According to Article 14 (1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR); “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”. The 1951 United Nations Convention and its 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees include the principle ofnonrefoulement; “No Contracting State shall expel or return a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” Thailand is not a party to the 1951 Convention or its 1967 Protocol, and as such, there are officially no refugees or refugee camps in Thailand. Instead, the terms used have been ‘Persons of Concern’ and ‘temporary shelters’.

On the other side of the coin, one must acknowledge the immense difficulty in dealing with a refugee situation as vast and protracted as the one along the Thailand-Burma border. Accordingly, in 2008, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) pleaded the international community to increase support for essential services to unrecognised refugees. IRC stated that the Thai government should not have to shoulder the responsibility of hosting the refugee population on their own (Green-Rauenhorst, Jacobsen, & Pyne, 2008).

More details, please refer to Burma Link on