Sunday, August 31, 2014

NGO’s say Aid Cuts Pressure Refugees on Thai-Burma Border to Return Home Prematurely

A group of Burma-focused international NGO’s have voiced grave concern that refugees on the Thai-Burma border are being forced to return to Burma prematurely due to deep cuts in international aid.

In a joint statement, the European Burma Network said: “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 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,” the statement said, adding that “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 also slammed the European Union for putting the lives of refugees at risk, saying that “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 refugee camps have been cut recently by The Border Consortium (TBC)—a coalition of NGO’s that has administered aid to the camps for over two decades—as part of its “staged assistance plan.” The latest funding cut in December resulted in rice rations being cut for certain refugee households classified as “self-reliant,” while other households classified as “standard,” “vulnerable,” or “most vulnerable” will not have their rice rations reduced.

The rice rations of “self-reliant” households have been reduced from 12kg per month to 8kg at Umphiem and Mae La, two of the largest camps which collectively house 56,000 refugees. At other refugee camps, TBC reduced the rice rations of “self-reliant” households to 10kg per month. However, rice rations for all households at Ban Don Yang camp will remain at 2013 levels.

TBC recently introduced its “staged assistance plan” for rice rations in order to direct more resources from its dwindling budget towards “livelihood programs,” which are designed to increase the self-sufficiency of refugees. However, the European Burma Network’s recent statement criticized TBC’s “livelihood programs,” claiming there isn’t enough funding for the programs to be effective.

“These programs are so underfunded they do not come close to providing adequate programs. It is also wrong for funding to be diverted from providing essentials such as food and shelter. Funding for these programs 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-militarization of eastern Burma; and the clearance of landmines have 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 [used as] cheap labor in factories.”

TBC’s latest figures from March this year noted that 119,000 refugees were currently living in the nine refugee camps located along the Thai-Burma border— 10,000 less than in March 2013. Yet TBC has denied that its programs were designed to force refugees back into Burma.

“TBC wishes to emphasize 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 organized return of refugees,” a spokesman from TBC said in an email to Karen News after the most recent ration cuts.

Karen Women’s Group Condemns Aid Cuts to Refugees on Thai-Burma Border

In an exclusive interview with Karen News, the Secretary of the Karen Women’s Organization (KWO)—an NGO which represents female refugees on the Thai-Burma border—slammed the recent cuts in humanitarian aid and other forms of assistance to refugees on the border. The KWO Secretary’s comments follow a host of similar statements by other NGO’s condemning the funding cuts by international donors.

“Our refugee community feels it is under pressure to return to Burma. If there is not enough food, not enough health services and not enough shelter [then] sensible people will feel the need to move and go to another place where they find these things. That is just common sense,” KWO Secretary Naw K’nyaw Paw told Karen News.

The KWO is a community-based organization of Karen women who facilitate development and provide relief services in refugee camps on the border. The organization also provides similar services to internally displaced persons inside Burma. In total, KWO says it has a membership base of over 49,000 Karen women.

“As the situation in Burma is not yet ready or safe for refugees to return – we expect to see lots of people trying to find other places to go. That might be within Thailand. This again places us in danger, as we are liable to be arrested and deported [since refugees aren’t permitted to live or work outside the camp area],” said Naw K’nyaw Paw, adding that refugees are now struggling to feed their families because funding reductions have led to rationing of essential items such as rice, and that families now have little choice but to…consider their options, despite the lack of viable alternatives.”

“Refugees may also decide to try to return to places in Burma that are not yet safe and this also puts them in grave danger. We have also heard NGO’s and donors talking about a thing they call ‘incentivizing return.’ This seems to us to be a fancy new jargon for forced repatriation,” said Naw K’nyaw Paw.

The KWO’s concerns come as a growing number of internationally-based Burma human rights NGO’s have condemned the recent aid cuts to refugees. In a joint statement released two weeks ago, the European Burma Network—which represents 15 Burma-focused human rights NGO’s in Europe, including the European Karen Network, Burma Campaign UK, and Christian Solidarity Worldwide—said that the cuts endangered the lives of refugees.

“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,” the network said.

Rice rations in the refugee camps have been cut by The Border Consortium (TBC)—a coalition of NGO’s that has administered aid to the camps for over two decades—as part of its “staged assistance plan.” The latest funding cut in December resulted in rice rations being cut for refugee households classified as “self-reliant,” whereas households classified as “standard,” “vulnerable,” or “most vulnerable” will not have their rice rations reduced.

TBC introduced its “staged assistance plan” for rice rations in order to direct more resources from its dwindling budget towards “livelihood programs,” which are designed to increase the self-sufficiency of refugees. However, the European Burma Network’s recent statement criticized TBC’s “livelihood programs,” claiming there isn’t enough funding for the programs to be effective.

The statement said “These programs are so underfunded they do not come close to providing adequate programs. It is also wrong for funding to be diverted from providing essentials such as food and shelter. Funding for these programs should be additional to, rather than instead of, providing essentials for survival.”

During her interview with Karen News, KWO Secretary Naw K’nyaw Paw said she has been overwhelmed with reports of refugees finding it difficult to cope with the ration cuts.

“We have received many reports from many women and men about the problems they are facing because of the cuts in rations and other service. If you cut an adult rice ration from 15 kilos per month to 8 kilos per month, [as] TBC has had to do in December 2013, you would expect to see problems emerging. The rations in the past were enough to keep people alive. Now they are not – assistance for bamboo and wood for our houses has also been drastically cut, as have support for health and education services. All of this throws a bigger burden onto families to provide for themselves.”

The KWO has found that funding cuts have put pressure on refugees to find work outside the camps in order to survive, meaning that children and young people are left at home alone inside the camps without proper parental supervision. Naw K’nyaw Paw also expressed concern that refugees seeking work outside the camp are vulnerable to economic exploitation and abuse, citing the recent murder of two refugees by their Thai employer.

“Those who leave [the camps] to work are open to abuse by employers. They are not protected by Thai laws, so they can be easily exploited. In a recent case, certainly an extreme case, a refugee couple from Mae La camp worked for three months for a corn farmer not far from Mae La camp. When they asked to be paid he killed them both with an axe in front of their two children. [The employer] fled the scene and has not been found.”

Underscoring the dilemma faced by refugees on the border, Naw K’nyaw Paw also listed some of the problems confronting people who are considering going back to Karen State instead of remaining in Thailand.

“Landmines; a much increased Burmese army presence near Karen villages; not enough food and services for the locals (let alone many new refugees); lack of livelihood opportunities; not full and proper ceasefire agreements. [Furthermore,] many new big economic development projects are swarming into Karen state [and] with no proper regulations to control what they do and how they do it, we see this as another form of abuse of our people and of our land.”

Similarly, the European Burma Network noted that refugees still can’t return to Burma safely because issues such as the return of confiscated land; the de-militarization of eastern Burma; and the clearance of landmines have not been solved yet. In its statement, the network also said that “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 [used as] cheap labor in factories.”

Refugees have experienced a series of cuts to their rations and services in the camps over the last two years. The latest funding cut, implemented in December 2013, saw rice rations provided to “self-reliant” households reduced from 12kg per month to 8kg at Umphiem and Mae La, two of the largest camps which collectively house 56,000 refugees. At other refugee camps, TBC reduced the rice rations of “self-reliant” households to 10kg per month. However, rice rations for all households at Ban Don Yang camp will remain at 2013 levels.

TBC’s latest figures from March this year noted that 119,000 refugees were currently living in the nine refugee camps located along the Thai-Burma border— 10,000 less than in March 2013. Yet TBC has denied that its programs were designed to force refugees back into Burma, implying that the reduction in refugee numbers is actually attributable to refugees moving to other parts of Thailand—especially in view of the risks and dangers associated with returning to Burma.

“TBC wishes to emphasize 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 organized return of refugees,” a spokesman from TBC said in an email to Karen News after the most recent ration cuts.


Thailand’s largest refugee camp, Mae La, is a dense, overcrowded city of over 43,000 people on the country’s border with Burma. Bamboo huts sprawl over hills, their dirt-floor interiors containing few possessions beyond NGO-issued goods like bags of rice and toothbrushes. Most refugees subsist on rice and pungent fish paste, but with declining concern from international donors over the civil war in Burma, the food rations in the camps have recently been cut, causing several riots. It’s the kind of place you only want to live in if you’re on your way to someplace better.

On one hill sits a hut that doesn’t quite fit in. Its roof, like the thousands around it, is made of thatched grasses and leaves, but its walls are gray-painted wood. Inside is what looks like a small but tidy bachelor pad that could be in London or Berlin or Milwaukee: appliances, an oven, a window, a bathroom, a fridge full of fruits, vegetables, and eggs. But the food is all plastic, and the toilet doesn’t work, and no one is really supposed to live here—it’s a simulator apartment, designed to get Mae La refugees accustomed to the modern-day amenities of Western living before they finally immigrate to any of a dozen countries that take in people fleeing Myanmar, including the US, Australia, Denmark, and Canada.

My guide to the apartment was a man I’ll call Saw Norman*, a 52-year-old Karen refugee who’s a member of one of the many ethnic groups whose rebel fighters spent decades at war with the government in Burma. Norman has been fleeing the conflict since he was eight—his parents moved from region to region, town to town. In 2006, by then with a family of his own, he braved the jungles and the minefields and fled across the border into Thailand. He's lived in Mae La ever since.

Norman moved around the simulator pointing out the different devices and how they work. For the tour, he was dressed in his finest; standing in the small kitchen in his crisp pink shirt, you'd never guess he was a refugee. But back at his bamboo hut, Norman and his family cook over an outdoor fire, fueling it with wood or charcoal; among their cooking staples are NGO-issue rice and fish paste.

“We call this a 'sink,' to wash the plates and then after we wash the plates, we dry the plates and we arrange them on the plate shelf,” he told me.

Despite his enthusiasm, Norman has never used many of the apartment’s devices in real life, and likely won’t get a chance to. Despite his English skills and a strong desire to move his family to a country where his children can get a good education, Norman won’t be eligible for resettlement in the foreseeable future. The year before he arrived in Mae La, the Thai government largely stopped registering any new arrivals from Burma, and registration is a prerequisite for resettlement.

Sally Thompson, the head of the Border Consortium, an NGO that supports refugees in the nine camps along the Thailand-Burma border, told me that Thailand has been generous with the hundreds of thousands of refugees it has taken in over the decades from Burma, Cambodia and Vietnam. But she added that leaving people like Norman and his family unregistered makes their situation all the more precarious.

“Any new arrival who came into the camps since 2005 is not even registered in a database with the Thai government,” she said. Refugees like Norman have no legal status and, as nonpersons, are much more likely to be deported back to Burma. The Thai government can get away with not registering refugees because it never signed the United Nations Refugee Convention.

Walking through camp away from the simulator apartment, Norman and I met another Karen refugee, Saw Wah*, who's on track for resettlement. Wah has family in Winnipeg, Canada, and he's waiting expectantly for his resettlement application to work its way through both the Thai and Canadian bureaucracies. If he's lucky, he'll soon begin prepping for life in Canada. He may even get a training session in the simulator apartment.

As Norman listened, I wondered how hard it is for him to bear the other man's enthusiasm for the future. The only hope for Norman's family to get out of Mae La safely would be the end of Burma’s civil war, which has been raging for more than 60 years. The government and the rebels are currently holding complex ceasefire talks, but there is still fighting in some parts of the country, and the Burmese army remains deployed in the southeast of the country, in and around many Karen villages. Thompson told me that until the troops withdraw the refugees won’t feel safe enough to return to their homeland.

Even if Norman had the choice, he wouldn't return to Burma anyway. If he could, he'd move to the West so his three children could get a good education. But for now, Mae La is home, and the simulated apartment is just a fantasy.

As he walks me toward the entrance of the camp, where I will leave him behind the barbed wire, we pass the apartment again. I ask Norman how he feels when he sees it. “It makes us sad,” he says. “Because our life, to have a chance like that, we dream of that.”

*Names of refugees in this article have been changed at their request.

UNHCR Says Won’t Shield Crooked Refugees From Law

PETALING JAYA: Refugees or asylum-seekers registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are not immune to prosecution if they have committed a crime.

While the organisation offers protection to those in need of international protection, it does not extend to those who have committed serious crimes or actions contrary to the tenets of the United Nations.

UNHCR spokesman in Kuala Lumpur, Yante Ismail, said a detailed and thorough examination would be carried out in such instances.

“Though it is our policy to not comment publicly on individual cases, we take these issues seriously,” she said in reference to the recent arrests of three suspected militants carrying UNHCR cards.

“The refugees are responsible to conform to the laws and regulations of their country of asylum, as well as to abide by measures taken by the authorities to maintain public order.”

Yante said the UNHCR had a legal and thorough procedure in determining a person's refugee status under the Refugee Status Determination process.

She said this would include a detailed interview and investigation by trained personnel before someone obtained refugee status.

“Due to the thoroughness, particularly in high-profile and complicated cases, this process would usually take some time,” she said.

“The procedure involves assessing whether a person is in need of protection and also, when required, whether their conduct would exclude them from protection.”

As long as the refugees have been forced to leave their homelands due to armed conflict, persecution, and serious human rights abuses, Yante said there was no expiry date on their refugee status until a long-term solution was found.

She said a refugee had the right to safe asylum and would not be forced to return to a country that would put the refugee's life or freedom at risk.

“The international protection includes more than physical safety as the refugees deserve to receive at least equal rights and basic help as any other legal foreign resident of a country.

“However, since Malaysia is not a state party to the 1951 Refugees Convention and its protocol, Malaysian law makes no distinction between refugees and undocumented migrants, because it does not have an asylum system to regulate the status and rights of refugees,” she said.

Yante said while refugees in general should have basic civil, economic, and social rights as others, this did not apply in Malaysia.

Refugees here are unable to work legally and are at risk of arrest or detention for immigration offences.

However, she said Malaysia did continue to cooperate with UNHCR in addressing refugee issues on humanitarian grounds.

“This is particularly so in preventing the arrest, detention, and deportation of refugees, and enabling NGOs and the refugee community to provide welfare assistance programmes to them,” she said.

“We cooperate with various government bodies, NGOs and volunteers to assist refugees in different areas and also to support durable solutions, such as resettlement to third countries including Australia, Canada and the United States.”

Yesterday, Malay Mail reported three men were detained in raids in Petaling Jaya and Klang on May 15. They were believed to be members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The trio, who were arrested for suspected terrorist activities in the country, had been in the country since 2004, and had used UNHCR cards to stay and avoid action.

As at last month, there were 144,300 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with UNHCR in Malaysia.

-The Malay Mail

The Sedona Group’s S.O.A.R. Scholarship Winner Came To Q.C. As A Refugee

There are five students in the Quad City area who are “soaring” tonight thanks to a scholarship from The Sedona Group and the help of WQAD.

On Thursday, May 29th, 2014, News 8’s Angie Sharp surprises the fourth of five winners – a student who is motivated by her past to succeed in the future.

Van Par grew up in Chin State Burma. However, a few years ago, she and her family were forced to flee to Malaysia after being persecuted for ethnic and religious reasons. Van spent two years in a refugee camp before coming to the U.S. at the age of 16.

“My goal is to have peace here and have a successful life and be a part of America,” she says.

Four years alter, Van is about to graduate from Rock Island High School. During one of her classes, WQAD and The Sedona Group surprised her with a $1,000 scholarship.

“I was shocked,” says Van. “I’m really scared and I’m shaking because I can’t believe it.”

Van says when she moved to the Quad Cities, she didn’t speak any English. She says she stayed after school most days to practice and get better. To Van, that defines success.

“Success doesn’t have to be winning a million dollars or like having a lot of money,” she explains. “I think success is being proud of myself that I speak English.”

Van is also staying true to herself and helping others do the same. On Sundays, Van teaches a classroom full of children at the Quad Cities Chin Baptist Church. She uses a story from the bible to give them a lesson about their own language so they never forget their past.

“Some who grow up here don’t know their own language – Chin Burmese so I teach them English, Burmese, and Chin,” says Van.

Van also spends her free time taking people from the Chin community to the grocery store, doctor appointments, or the bank. She acts as a transporter and a translator.

“Chin people live here and they are a part of their community and they are a part of family as well,” says Van. “I want everyone to know that.”

In the fall, Van plans to go to Illinois College. She says she wants to become a surgeon and participate in cancer research.

“When I saw little children suffering from cancer, I felt really bad so I want to do it for them so they can have a wonderful life and they can have the opportunity to enjoy the world.”

The Sedona Group’s S.O.A.R. Scholarship stands for Strength, Opportunity, Achievement, and Resolve. The $1,000 scholarship is given away every year to five area high school seniors.

Source :

The plight of Cincinnati's refugee population

Greater Cincinnati is home to as many as 25,000 refugees. They come from such countries as Bhutan, Burundi, Congo, Ethiopia, Somalia, Burma, Vietnam, Russia and Iraq, but all experienced severe persecution in their homelands that forced them to flee. They also share the struggle to create fresh lives, overcome the language barrier, learn a new culture and integrate into American society.

Steven Thang landed at Louisville International Airport on Aug. 25, 2008. His wife and her family had been resettled in Louisville from Burma a few months earlier. After escaping the hostile regime in Burma then waiting nearly four years as a refugee in Malaysia, Thang had finally gotten United Nations approval to start a new life in the United States. He saw the U.S. as a gate to his dreams, unlocked at last.

“I was really excited because America is a free land,” he says, “a place where if you really try, everything can be.” These were his thoughts as he waited outside the airport for a ride from local refugee services.

A Hard Start

Thang is from Chin, a state located in western Burma. Chin persecution goes back to the 1960s military takeover in Burma, when Burmese troops and officials began a project of forcible conversion of all minorities to Buddhism. The Chin had converted to Christianity during World War II under British occupation and held that faith ever since, even in the face of torture, forced labor and extra-judicial killings.

Thang was 22 and just about to take his final exams for a university degree in philosophy when it became unsafe for him to continue living in Burma. A refugee agent hid and connected him with a group that would escape to Malaysia via Thailand. The move was sudden, and he didn't have a chance to see his family, nor has he since.

By foot, boat and occasionally car, Thang and a group of 30 men, women and children pushed their way through the southeast Asian forests of Thailand, crossing the border into Malaysia illegally nine at a time while nearly suffocating in the covered bed of a truck.

In Malaysia, Thang and a few of his university classmates lived out of one room in a three-bedroom apartment provided by the UN. They volunteered as teachers for the young Chin refugees, using the living room and two other bedrooms for classes.

Thang and his group were safe from Burmese troops, but life was far from easy. They had barely enough resources to get by, and the Malaysian government was inhospitable. For teachers, the threat of arrest was always present. The UN provided identification forms and letters of protection, but it didn't make a difference to the Malaysian police. Just before Thang arrived in Malaysia, a group of Chin teachers had been arrested and executed for unknown reasons.

Despite the danger and cramped conditions, Thang waited. And waited. Getting the UN call for resettlement can be something of a lottery. There are 60 countries that accept refugees, and more than 15 million refugees currently registered with the UN. Resettlement is limited by how many refugees a nation can accept at a given time, where communities have already been established and what ties, if any, a refugee may have in a potential host country. Refugees have waited in camps as long as 20 years.

The waiting didn't stop Thang from moving forward with his life, though. He married a fellow Chin refugee who had waited in Malaysia even longer than he had. His break came when she was selected for resettlement with cousins in Louisville. Since Thang had become part of that family, too, the UN approved his resettlement, and four months later he was on a plane bound for Kentucky.

The Big Move

Once a refugee is selected for resettlement by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), their case is piped down through several organizational tiers before finally reaching a settlement destination. In the U.S., they arrive with an I-94 form, a unique status among all classes of immigrants. Refugees receive a social security card upon entry to the U.S. and are eligible for social services, food assistance, Medicaid coverage and most services that citizens qualify for. They can apply for a green card within a year, and are eligible for citizenship after five years of residence.

For Thang, ties to his wife and her family were enough to move him through the pipeline directly to Louisville. Kentucky Refugee Ministries (KRM) handles resettlement cases for that region, and is responsible for acclimating refugees once they arrive, providing airport pickup, housing, medical examinations, job assistance, cultural integration and language courses.

Having already studied English at university allowed Thang to begin working at his wife's cousins' sushi restaurant right away, but that’s not the norm. Many refugees arrive with little or no education and job skills that may not translate to the U.S. Moving to a new country can be bewildering, but it's all the more so for refugees suffering from PTSD and who have lived for years in camps without electricity, running water or even reliable food sources.

“They don't make the move because they want to. Applying for resettlement means they cannot return home again for fear for their lives,” says Dabney Parker, KRM resource coordinator. “When they first get here, they're extremely excited to be in a safe place. But then daily realities set in, and it's hard. There's an emotional roller coaster for a while.”

Settling In

Resettlement agencies like KRM in Kentucky, and its northern counterpart, Catholic Charities Southwestern Ohio, try to make that roller coaster ride as smooth as possible. The first step is cultural orientation classes taught or interpreted by agency staff who speak the refugees' native language. These cover fundamentals like opening a bank account, enrolling children in school, accessing public transportation, abiding by U.S. laws and getting a job. These classes are coupled with English courses to provide refugees an overall crash course in America.

“Some refugees arrive here signing with just an 'X' because they have never needed a signature before,” says Alisa Berry, director of refugee resettlement at Catholic Charities Southwestern Ohio. “Ease of adjustment depends on where the refugee is coming from. For those from camps, it's a big change. Many have never been to a grocery store, never seen a bus or paid rent. Just being in a home with running water, electricity, heating, a refrigerator and a stove can be quite an adjustment.”

KRM's target is to have refugees become self-sufficient in six to nine months. That comes with job placement assistance at the end of the course, typically involving entry-level positions in hospitality, hotels and food service, as well as manufacturing for those with intermediate English abilities.

Levi and Club Chef are significant employers of Chin refugees in Northern Kentucky. About 300 Chin live in the region, most of them close to the factories. It's hard for them to go anywhere else, as most don't drive. Although the drivers license test is translated into many language, Chin is not one of them. And once a refugee starts working, it's very difficult to attend resettlement agencies' free daytime English classes.

“When we were talking with the refugees, that came up over and over again: We want to learn English but there are no classes we can make it to,” says Kelly Birkenhauer, chair of RefugeeConnect, a Junior League of Cincinnati project.

Getting Connected

RefugeeConnect officially launched in 2013 as a support network to bridge the gap between initial refugee services and the later struggles these immigrants face as new Americans. In March, the project worked with Thang and other Chin community leaders to organize weekly evening English classes at a church within walking distance of a large number of the Chin refugees. Volunteers teach the classes, and each week one or two dozen Chin who wouldn't otherwise be able to fit the studies into their work schedules attend.

The broader goal is sustainable improvement of refugees' lives in Cincinnati through a strategy of “Ambassadors, Community and Events.” This involves the training of volunteer English and citizenship tutors, community collaboration, and events that increase cultural awareness and advocacy. Beyond the language barrier, one of the most widespread problems is that refugees and social service organizations are not often aware of one another.

“We're building those community connections that people who are not from here may not have,” Birkenhauer says. “That can be hard to navigate even if you are from here. Our goal is to create a supply system where we can plug refugees into the different agencies.”

New Neighbors

Outside of support services, community integration and awareness are critical for the wellbeing of Cincinnati's refugees. Thang learned quickly that the escape from violence and persecution in his home country didn't mean the end of hardship. He is educated, has a high proficiency in English and has worked his way into ownership of two sushi franchises in Cincinnati, but he still experiences prejudice and backlash from the local community.

“Most people don't understand who refugees are, or what their status is in the U.S.,” Birkenhauer says. “Many think refugees are here illegally. But in reality, refugee status means you've been invited here by the U.S. government in order to become a citizen. It's about as opposite of illegal as you can get.”

Refugees are often turned away when they show I-94 status papers to banks and landlords. The forms are unfamiliar, and people assume they're illegitimate or undesirable. Even with proof of residence and an ability to show income, Thang has struggled for months with banks that are unwilling to grant him a home loan.

“A hard thing is when I think about my future,” Thang says. “As a refugee, you have to work and use your energy twice as much as other people.”

But problems don't stop at the bank or work. Thang has been stopped by police or security guards and searched on suspicion of theft several times. On one occasion, he was browsing at a furniture store and noticed the cashier watching him. He visited the restroom, and when he came out, there were police officers waiting to escort him outside and search him.

“I thought, 'Why are you doing this to me?'” he says. “I'm not a criminal. That day I cried.”

For this reason, Thang works tirelessly to improve conditions for his family and community. He is the president of the Chin Baptist Church USA, which has 74 member churches throughout the nation. He is also his church's worship leader, vice president of the youth group and president of the Chin Literature and Culture Community, which teaches and preserves the Chin language, writing, literature and culture for future generations in the U.S. Beyond his church activities, Thang finds time to be the Chin Community Secretary, too.

“My community first needs knowledge, and second to learn how to change and integrate their lives with the community,” he says. “When I feel happy is when I see my people enter the U.S., grow up, go to school and finish university.”

Thang's ambition to finish his own degree has taken a backseat to community work, supporting his family and studying for the citizenship exam. Once he becomes a citizen, he can bring his mother, father, brother and sister over from Burma; he hasn't seen them since he left, and they've never met his son, who turned 2 in May.

“Any of the groups will tell you that it's very difficult,” Birkenhauer says. “But at the same time, they're excited for their children. It's a similar experience that any immigrant group faces. Looking back through Cincinnati's history, first generation immigrants may not have learned English or had jobs that they liked. But there is hope to improve things for the next generation.”

Tenasserim to allot land for refugees, officials say

About 130,000 refugees from Burma still live in camps along the Thai border. (PHOTO: Reuters)

Government officials of Tenasserim Division [Tanintharyi Region] claimed that refugees residing in a camp in Thailand would soon be able to return to Burma as they are scouting for land for their resettlement.

The camp in question is Tham Hin, located in Thailand’s Ratchaburi province bordering Burma, which houses about 6,000 refugees. Karen Ethnic Affairs Minister Saw Harry visited the camp and said that 75 percent of the refugees wish to return home, so the divisional government is now looking for plots of land in Tenasserim Division to accommodate them.

“We thought one plot near Maw Taung in Tanintharyi Township’s border gate and one to the east of Myittar in Tavoy would be good places,” Saw Harry said. “We are still searching for the exact places.”

He added that a resettlement committee will be there to assist the refugees.

“If they come back, we would ask for assistance from one of the NGOs and prepare rations,” Saw Harry said.

Regional government secretary Tin Thein claimed that land would be given to the refugees when they return, though there are no plans to build houses yet.

“When they come back to stay, we have plans to give them the land. Most of them may have families in their respective villages,” Tin Thein said. “When they get back to their villages, we will help them together with the NGOs.”

“We cannot build the houses without them coming back first,” he said.

Saw Ramond Htoo, Tham Hin refugee camp committee chairman, said that refugees have no immediate plan to return.

“We are not going back now,” Saw Ramond Htoo said, adding that refugees mistrust whether the government’s land offer is legitimate. “They came and took the land before and there was no land for us.”

Thailand currently hosts nine refugee camps where more than 130,000 refugees from Burma reside, having escaped armed and ethnic conflict from their home states.

While the Thai and Burmese governments haveexpressed the desire to repatriate refugees from Thailand’s nine refugee camps, aid agencies, including The Border Consortium, have said that theconditions are not right for refugees to return yet.

Regional officials emphasised that they are only in a scouting stage and no decision has been reached about where and when repatriation might be possible.

The Tide Is Turning for Burmese in Thailand, But Which Way?

Thailand’s migration and refugee policies have shifted since the military’s coup d’├ętat in May. The Thai junta has initiated a policy of labor reforms, including a crackdown on undocumented migrant workers to allegedly combat corruption and human trafficking.

Most of the 2.2 million registered migrant workers in Thailand are Burmese, but labor rights activists estimate there are an additional 3 million workers who are undocumented. The majority of these migrants work in the construction and fishing sectors and many, including those with legal rights to work, report exploitation by their employers. A recent report by the Guardian explained how Burmese workers were sold by traffickers and forced to work on fishing boats, without being allowed to return to the mainland for years. But there have also been stories of abuse and mistreatment of migrants by the police. It is no wonder that when rumors spread of the Thai junta’s crackdown, more than 200,000 Cambodians fled back home, fearful of violence towards them.

The junta’s policy shift may also be affecting Burmese refugees living along the border, who have received mixed signals regarding their repatriation. Since the beginning of June, movement restrictions have been more strictly enforced for the Burmese refugees living in camps. They are banned from leaving the camps, confined to their homes from 6pm to 6am, and threatened with deportation if they don’t comply.

In July, the Thai junta pledged to send back to Myanmar about 100,000 of the 130,000 refugees living in the border camps – some of whom have been there for more than two decades. From August 1 to August 3, Thai and Burmese authorities met in the Burmese town of Mergui to talk about these plans, and a Thai army source told the Irrawaddy newspaper that the junta aimed to “send back all of them [the refugees] and close down all nine camps to end chronic security problems posed by the refugees.” Despite these actions, Thai authorities have reportedly assured the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) that the return of the refugees will be voluntary, dignified, and safe, and that no time frame has been set.

Although the situation in Myanmar has improved over the last two and a half years, organizations such as the UNHCR state that the country is not ready for a sustainable, safe, and organized refugee return. Challenges include the absence of a permanent ceasefire in eastern Myanmar; the presence land mines and unmarked minefields; insufficient infrastructure and jobs for returnees; and a lack of safeguards on issues such as citizenship, land rights, security, identity documents, and healthcare.

According to the Bangkok Post, the Thai government has divided the refugees into those who want to return to Myanmar, those who wish to resettle in another country country, and those who were born and wish to remain in Thailand. There have been no decisions about what will happen to refugees who are unable or unwilling to repatriate or resettle in a third country, and there are no indications that local integration will be offered as a long-term solution. Meanwhile, Thai authorities have begun conducting a census of Burmese refugees at the country’s largest camp, which some refugees fear could lead to their immediate repatriation.

While we await further developments in Thailand, the world should remain vigilant. Though the Thai government has given assurances concerning the voluntary, safe, and dignified nature of any refugee returns to Myanmar, it will be important for the humanitarian community to monitor the situation closely and ensure that refugees are not pressured to return prematurely.

Leticia Isasi is an intern at Refugees International.

Monday, August 25, 2014

More than 20,000 people risk all on Indian Ocean to reach safety: UNHCR report

GENEVA, August 22 (UNHCR) – A new UNHCR report on irregular maritime movements in Southeast Asia estimates that 20,000 people risked their lives in sea crossings in the first half of this year. Many were Rohingya who fled Myanmar and arrived in the region suffering the effects of malnutrition and abuse during the journey. Several hundred people were also intercepted on boats heading to Australia.

The report was produced by UNHCR's Bangkok-based Maritime Movements Monitoring Unit, which collates information through interviews, and from media reports, partners and governments. It focuses on departures from the Bay of Bengal and elsewhere passing through Southeast Asia, and highlights the abuses people are facing on their journeys, and developments related to Australia's Operation Sovereign Borders policy.

It also shows that more than 7,000 asylum-seekers and refugees who have travelled by sea are at present held in detention facilities in the region, including over 5,000 in Australia or its offshore processing centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

Because of its clandestine nature, the extent of people smuggling remains hard to determine. But interviews with survivors have offered insights into what goes on during the long and arduous journey from Myanmar and Bangladesh to Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and beyond.

The report estimates that 53,000 people departed irregularly by sea from the Bay of Bengal in the 12 months ending June 2014 – a 61 per cent increase over the previous 12 months. In the two years following the June 2012 outbreak of inter-communal violence in Myanmar's Rakhine state, some 87,000 people – mostly Rohingya but also Bangladeshis – embarked on the dangerous journey in search of safety and stability.

The main sailing season has continued to be between October and the first quarter of the year when seas are calmer. Departures were mostly from Teknaf in Bangladesh and Maungdaw in Myanmar, with smaller numbers from Sittwe. Typically, passengers were ferried on small boats to larger fishing or cargo boats that could each hold up to 700 people. Most were men, but there were also rising numbers of women and children.

Most passengers interviewed said they paid between US$50 and US$300 to board the boats and were at sea for an average of one to two weeks. Some waited for up to two months for their boat to take on more passengers. Many said they fell sick along the way. There are also unconfirmed reports of deaths due to illness, heat, a lack of food and water and severe beatings.

In Thailand, the survivors of sea journeys said they were packed into pick-up trucks at night, and forced to sit or lie on top of up to 20 other people. They were taken to smugglers' camps in or around hills, jungles or plantations. Hundreds were confined, for up to six months, behind wooden fences with only plastic sheets to sleep on.

Many were unaware that they would need to pay more money, usually US$1,500-US$2,200, to be released. They were made to call relatives in Myanmar, Bangladesh or Malaysia to send money through hard currency, bank transfers or mobile payment systems. Those who could not pay would be beaten and detained for long periods of time.

Survivors of this ordeal told UNHCR staff about people dying in these smugglers' camps due to illness or physical injuries. Some lost sensory abilities and mobility from beriberi due to malnutrition, specifically Vitamin B1 deficiency.

As of early July, 233 Rohingya remained in Thai detention centres or shelters. UNHCR is discussing alternatives to detention with government counterparts and other stakeholders. UNHCR is providing aid and working with the authorities and UNICEF to enable the children to attend local schools.

In Malaysia, UNHCR has had access to 230 people who arrived directly by boat between January and June, as well as to others who landed by boat in Thailand and made their way across the land border into Malaysia. In total, more than 4,700 Rohingya were registered during this period, including 375 unaccompanied and separated children. Since the late 1990s, some 38,000 Rohingya have registered with UNHCR Malaysia.

The health and protection needs of recent arrivals remain a major concern, with many.showing signs of beriberi.

In Indonesia, 60 Rohingya approached UNHCR in Indonesia between January and June – a drop of almost 90 per cent compared to the same period last year. By the end of June 2014, there were 951 Rohingya registered with UNHCR, mainly people who arrived in previous years from Malaysia. In the first half of the year, nine boats travelling towards Australia with more than 400 people were intercepted under the government's Operation Sovereign Borders. Seven were returned to Indonesia. One boat with 41 passengers was returned to Sri Lanka. The 157 people on board another boat that left from India were transferred to Nauru, pending a decision by the Australian High Court on how to process them.

All these developments take place in the context of a very challenging protection environment for refugees in the region. States, including Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, are not signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and lack formal legal frameworks for dealing with refugees. Without a legal status they are often at risk of arrest, detention, and deportation under immigration laws. It also makes legal employment impossible and drives many people, including women and children, into exploitative and vulnerable situations.

The report "South-East Asia: Irregular Maritime Movements January-June 2014" is available

Burmese refugees wary over Thailand's changes

Tha Song Yang, Thailand - Eight years ago, Saw Thi Say, 45, and his family left their home in Myanmar and relocated to a refugee camp in Thailand. They had endured the ongoing conflict between Myanmar's army and various ethnic groups in his country's northern state of Shan .

When the Burmese army confiscated their farmland in 2006, Saw Thi Say decided it was time to flee to the Thai border.

"We were forced to destroy our own crops and then they forced us to grow crops for [the army]," Saw Thi Say said. "So we came here. Our youngest was three at that time."

Mae La refugee camp, the largest in Thailand, is home to more than 40,000 people and stretches across 184 hectares along the mountain ranges of western Thailand. In operation for three decades, the majority of its residents - some of whom have lived there for just as long - are ethnic Karen who fled fighting.

"We need our children to get a good education and to have a good quality of life," the father of four daughters told Al Jazeera.

Saw Thi Say and his family thought life would be easier in Thailand. Although he no longer hears gunshots at night, he said living in Mae La remains challenging.

Thailand's military seized power on May 22, and since that time has cracked down on migrantsfrom neighbouring countries such as Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar. These moves have many refugees in Thailand wondering what's next for them. 

Reduced rations

At first glance, the Mae La camp resembles a rural town, with row after row of bamboo-stilt houses lining the mountainous terrain. Rising in the early morning, refugees head to the bustling market area, which is located by the camp's entrance and manned by Thai soldiers. Within the market's centre are the ration stations, where refugees line up waiting to receive rice and cooking oil.

However, rations at the camp have recently been reduced because of dwindling donor funds, and, in the last two months, restrictions imposed by the Thai authorities have increased. Additionally, a population census carried out in July has left most of the camp's residents worried about what changes its results may bring.

A lack of communication between the authorities and residents has fuelled rumours about the intention of the census, leaving the refugees in a heightened state of anxiety for their future.

These new fears compound the already-precarious situation for refugees living in one of Thailand's nine border camps. For families such as Saw Thi Say's, the task of obtaining a good education for their children is saddled with daily difficulties.

"In [Myanmar], we were oppressed by the military government," Mary, Saw Thi Say's wife, said. "Now here, we feel the same, oppressed by the Thai military."

Restricting movement

Law Ba Htoo, 39, has lived in the camp since 1992, when he also fled Karen State in Myanmar to escape fighting.

Since the Thai military banned residents from leaving Mae La to seek work, the community has been left to fend for themselves, he said. They worry that their attempts to gain additional income would backfire, causing them to lose their refugee status.

"People cannot leave the camp at all now. Even if we try to go out, we have to get permission from the Thai authorities," he said. "Among all the camp people, we are very worried that we will be sent back, and then we would have to be registered as refugees again."

Law Ba Htoo's application for resettlement in the United States was also approved in October of last year; he and his family have been eagerly preparing for a new life in Dallas, Texas.

However, Law Ba Htoo has not heard anything from the US since March. He is worried that the recent population census will affect his status in the country. 

"They don't share this information with us," he said. "The people who stay in the camp, they mostly want to resettle in the US because the restrictions by the Thai military are bad for our lives."

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) was not involved or consulted by the Thai government in the headcount, said UNHCR senior coordinator Iain Hall, who explained that authorities have said the census was done to ascertain the actual number of refugees living in the camps.

"UNHCR has shared its concern that refugees are very anxious about the purpose of the headcount, and therefore that they should be better informed," said Hall, adding the new Thai government has not stated any changes in its refugee policy.

Census concerns

Duncan McArthur, partnership director of The Border Consortium - a non-governmental organisation that distributes rations to the refugees - said while he doesn't expect the census to affect ration allocation, the reasons for it ambiguous.

"The actual purpose remains unclear but there haven't been any punitive outcomes to date," McArthur said in an email.

According to The Border Consortium's population records, there are more than 58,000 unregistered refugees in nine camps - almost 50 percent of the total camp population.

"The vast majority of unregistered refugees appear to have fled from the effects of conflict just like registered refugees before them," McArthur said. "It is not clear how unregistered refugees will be treated on this occasion, but they remain more vulnerable to discrimination than registered refugees."

Thai army spokesman Colonel Werachon Sukondhadpatipak told Al Jazeera the population census would also determine which refugees are moving in and out to work in Thailand illegally.

"They need to be able to control the movement of the refugees living in the camp, for those moving out and moving in," Werachon said, adding the military would not forcibly deport anyone.

"We have to work with many organisations, including the UNHCR," he said. "We also need to work closely with the Myanmar authorities to find the right time to send them back."

Decaying hope

But camp residents remain in the dark, and view both the Thai and Myanmar governments' plans for them with mistrust. Saw Wah, 34, has been living in Mae La for 15 years and is accustomed to, yet frustrated by, the constant dearth of information. 

"When things change, I have to follow the situation to look out for my life," he said. "Things are never stable for us."

With his rations recently reduced, Saw Wah said he had hoped his small grocery store in the camp might bring in extra money. But now, his business has been affected by the restrictions.

"There is no transparency between [the Thai authorities] and the camp people. This issue confuses everyone - the entire camp feels this way," Saw Wah said, his two-year-old daughter on his knee. "It decays my hope and my purpose."

Source :

Monday, August 18, 2014

Australia to take 4,400 refugees from Syria, Iraq

Australia will offer to resettle some 4,400 people fleeing violence in Iraq and Syria, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said today, adding the places had been freed up by success in stopping asylum-seeker boats. Boat arrivals have all but dried up since Australia said it would refuse resettlement to any refugees arriving on unauthorised.

Australia will offer to resettle some 4,400 people fleeing violence in Iraq and Syria, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said today, adding the places had been freed up by success in stopping asylum-seeker boats.

Boat arrivals have all but dried up since Australia said it would refuse resettlement to any refugees arriving on unauthorised vessels, sending them instead to Papua New Guinea and Nauru in the Pacific.

"The government's policies under Operation Sovereign Borders have not only saved lives at sea, but also allowed more places to be returned to our humanitarian programme for the world's most desperate and vulnerable people," he said.

The minister said a minimum of 2,200 places would be for Iraqis, including ethnic and religious minorities fleeing the violence in the north of the country.

"The government has also committed a minimum of 2,200 places for Syrians, including those now living in desperate conditions in countries such as Lebanon," he added.

Australia accepts 13,750 people into its humanitarian refugee programme each year, and Morrison said the government would ensure that 11,000 of these places would be for people overseas in need of resettlement.

"This government has made it very clear that priority in the humanitarian programme should be for those waiting overseas and entering Australia under an orderly process," he said.

Last year, Australia took more than 1,000 people from Syria, more than 2,000 from Iraq, 2,754 from Afghanistan and just over 1,800 from Myanmar.

Morrison said while the situation was improving in Myanmar, Australia would continue to support the resettlement of its refugees, "in particular those from the many Christian ethnic minorities currently living in Malaysia and Thailand, such as the Karen and Chin".

The Refugee Action Coalition criticised the government's announcement, saying the conservative administration had cut the overall refugee intake from 20,000 to 13,750 after taking office in September 2013.

"The number of refugees the coalition (government) says they will take from Iraq is paltry and hides the fact that the government has cut the refugee intake," said spokesman Ian Rintoul. "It is phoney generosity."

He said the announcement did nothing for the more than 100 Iraqi asylum-seekers in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. – AFP, August 17, 2014.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Thai Authorities Hamper Food Deliveries to Burmese Refugee Camp

Thousands of Burmese at the Ei Htu Hta refugee camp in eastern Burma are struggling to feed themselves as monthly food supplies from non-governmental organizations have been interrupted by Thai authorities, according to an aid worker.

Ei Htu Hta, located on the western bank of the Salween River in Burma’s Karen State, across from Thailand’s Mae Hong Son Province, houses about 4,000 Burmese refugees.

Saw Htoo Klei, the secretary of the Karen Office of Relief and Development (KORD), said refugees who live in the camp have seen food rations dwindle beginning late last month, as supply lines to the camp, which come from Thailand, have been monitored and sometimes interrupted by Thai authorities.

“Food for this month should have arrived by late last month, but we were not able to transport it in time as we faced some difficulties from Thai authorities,” said Saw Htoo Klei, whose organization provides assistance to internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Karen State and at the Ei Htu Hta camp.

Eh Doh, an Ei Htu Hta inhabitant, told The Irrawaddy that as a result, refugees were having to look elsewhere for food, and do more with less.

“Because we have had problems receiving rice on time, we have had to buy rice from local merchants,” he said. “Some people say they have been eating boiled rice soup since early this month as they don’t have enough rice.”

Food supplies for Ei Htu Hta are transported by boat through the nearby Thai village of Mae Sam Laep, upstream on the Salween. Thai military checkpoints are positioned along the river, which demarcates the Thai-Burma border.

There are nine refugee camps on the Thai side of the border, where some 130,000 refugees live.

A May 22 military coup brought the National Council for Peace and Order to power in Thailand, and with it have come changes that have restricted refugees’ movement and sent tens of thousands of migrant workers back to their home countries, fearing detention or worse.

At the same time, NGOs’ support to Burmese refugees in Thailand has declined since the beginning of 2012 as peace negotiations between Naypyidaw and ethnic armed rebel groups have ramped up. The prospect of an end to the decades-long armed conflict in Burma has spurred discussions between the Thai and Burmese governments about repatriating refugees.

In an interview with The Irrawaddy, Nyar Hter, chairman of Ei Htu Hta refugee camp, said food supplies have been declining annually.

“We only get rice and salt. We don’t get other additional foods such as yellow bean, cooking oil, canned fish and other nutritious foods like before,” Nyar Hter said.

According to a press release from Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a recent visit to Thailand by Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of the Burmese armed forces, included a meeting with Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, head of the ruling Thai junta.

Both sides touched upon the repatriation issue, according to the press release, and the Burmese side reaffirmed its commitment to working closely with Thailand to prepare for a safe future return, in accordance with humanitarian and human rights principles. The discussion was in general terms with no specific timeframe under consideration, the release stated.

Even as NGO support has declined and talk has increasingly turned to repatriation plans, it is clear that many refugees are not ready to return home.

“There is no safety for us to return as government troops are still occupying our village,” Nyar Hter said.

Help Burmese Migrants and Refugee Communities


Volunteers help migrant schools and communities. And the qualified volunteer may help with health care work.

Burmese and other ethnic minority groups, Karen etc., migrants and refugees live in very simple and unhealthy conditions, escaping even harsher conditions in their homeland. Burmese migrants not only have very poor education opportunities but also suffer severe health problems.


The Mae Sot region by the Burma border. You stay in Mae Sot town, host family or guesthouse or in the mountains, at a school or with a host family.

Mae Sot is a town by the Myanmar border with the Friendship Bridge linking it to Myawaddi in Myanmar. Burmese, Karen, Thais mix with Chinese and other ethnic groups.

All year round. Monthly volunteer training offered in Thailand to prepare volunteers
Volunteers – Who?

Dedicated volunteers willing to put in an effort are welcome, ready for simple living and an extraordinary and life changing experience!
What you can do as a volunteer
Teach English, focusing on practice and conversation
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Projects and people we help

Volunteers go to local schools, very poor migrant learning centers and their communities in the Mae Sot Region and mountains.

We also invite young migrants to our Thailand Training Center to train them, together with overseas volunteers, so one day they can go back to help their friends who are not allowed to travel in Thailand.

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Contact us for more information and to discuss what you can do

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The life of a refugee: fleeing forced labor, finding financial limbo

In her home country, the military used to make Nang Doi sew uniforms, sheets, curtains and upholstery for them. They wouldn’t pay her, and if she didn’t work, they would fine her. Other refugees from the area say the consequences were much worse: beatings, jail, sometimes rape. Doi was forced to work simply because she is Christian. She lived in a village in the Kachin state of northern Burma, also called Myanmar, a Buddhist country, where Doi says she was the only seamstress. Doi was born with a painful vascular malformation, called Hemangioma, on her right thigh. This made it difficult for her to stand for long periods of time. It made it difficult for her to work.

When she fled her village, Doi says the military followed. So without telling her parents, Doi escaped to Malaysia. But the thing about refugees is that often when they flee to neighboring countries, the conditions in those places are not much better than what they came from.

“Most refugees flee by land,” said Sarah Ivory, director of immigration and refugee programs for Church World Service in Greensboro. “So most refugees in the world are housed in countries, bordering countries that produce refugees, meaning they’re not much better than where they’ve come from. And in fact, sometimes much more dangerous.”

After making her case to the United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, Doi was granted refugee status in the United States. She arrived in Greensboro, N.C. in August 2013. Staff from Church World Service’s Greensboro refugee resettlement program greeted her at the airport. They had an apartment, food and employment classes all ready for her. A case manager was assigned to help Doi with whatever she needed to get settled. When she needed multiple surgeries on her leg, Church World Service helped get her Medicaid extended beyond the eight-month period refugees are given on arrival. Without the surgeries, Doi, who is 32 years old, would likely face a lifetime of living on disability. Now she has hopes of becoming a famous fashion designer.

Doi is one of about 70,000 refugees, or about half of one percent of all refugees, who are allowed in the U.S. each year. Church World Service resettles about 250 to 300 of those in the Greensboro area. Two other agencies also work nearby.

Earlier this summer, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, or ORR, shifted $94 million from refugee programs and services to help deal with unaccompanied minors crossing the border. Ivory was afraid she would have to cut staff. And with a staff of only 14 employees and AmeriCorps members, losing people can significantly affect the work they do.

ORR recently restored $22.5 million of the money back to refugee programs and services. But a new budget has to be approved soon.

“Supplemental funding is needed not only to replenish what has already been re-programed but also to make sure there is sufficient funding for next year,” Ivory said. “Because if they don’t significantly increase the overall budget for ORR next year, we’ll be in the exact same situation just in another six months.”

KNU warns it will block any efforts to return refugees prematurely

Padoh Thaw Thi Bwe

The Karen National Union’s, secretary 1, Padoh Saw Thaw Thi Bweh told Karen News that unless the situation in Burma guarantees refugees safety, their dignity and is conducted according to international humanitarian guidelines any return at the moment is not appropriate.

In an interview with Karen News, Padoh Saw Thaw Thi Bweh, Secratry of the Karen National Union, warned that the situation in Burma was not yet stable enough to see the safe return of refugees from Thailand.

“We, the KNU, firmly decided that if there is not yet political stability and a permanent ceasefire in Myanmar, it is not appropriate to repatriate the refugees,” Padoh Thaw Thi Bweh said, adding, “The Thai junta has assured us that they will not force the refugees to return home.”

Padoh Thaw Thi Bweh said that if efforts were made to return refugees in an unsafe manner in the future, the KNU would try and block such efforts. “If the Thai junta forces the refugees to return home or other organization would like to forcibly repatriate the refugees, we, the KNU, would like to prevent those plans. The refugees should not be forcibly repatriated unless they are repatriated with dignity as a group of human being with their fundamental rights to security, shelter, and food along with the process,” he said.

Padoh Thaw Thi Bweh said that a lack of information from the Thai government, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), camp authorities and NGO’s tasked with assisting refugees was stoking fears of forced return.

“If the committees (the UNHCR) formally meet with the camps’ leaders and camps’ committees and inform them about the Thai authorities’ conducting refugees’ census or head counting process clearly with accurate reasons, the refugees will not be scared of the insecurity,” he said, adding that the Karen Refugee Committee would try and fill the information gap, “the refugees directly belong to the KRC and the KRC is responsible to inform them clearly so they will feel relieved.”

However, Padoh Thaw Thi Bweh voiced concern that reports in the regional media of meetings between Thai authorities and the commander-in-chief of Burma’s military – where the two parties agreed to work closely together on refugee repatriation – was a “severe” concern.

“The current Thai authority is the military regime, and they do or follow as the orders. Therefore, it is also a threat for the camps’ residents. At the same time their [Thai junta] meeting with the Myanmar General Min Aung Hlang also becomes a severe concern for us,” he said.

Refugees have expressed growing fears that repatriation will occur in the near future, pointing out recent cuts to rations, reductions in camp services and a recent crackdown on long-existing, though until now laxly enforced, camp regulations by authorities – including harsh restrictions on movement – are making life harder for them.

Community based organisations working with refugees have also expressed concern that refugees are being ‘squeezed out’ by the recent changes.

Confusion has also abounded in regional media on the repatriation issue. Last month a Bangkok Post report warned that the Thai military might return refugees “within one year,” and that the UNHCR was preparing to provide land to refugees going back. UNHCR denied these reports as “untrue.” While in an official statement, Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that refugees would be sent back in line with “humanitarian principles” but failed to precisely outline a timeframe or under what specific humanitarian criteria refugees would be repatriated.

Padoh Thaw Thi Bweh concluded that if the current situation in ethnic areas remained as it was, refugees should not return. “[Even] If there is still no absence of civil war, and the political conflicts are not yet solved, or no political stability, it is absolutely not appropriate to repatriate the refugees.”

A 2012 report by the New York based Human Rights Watch, entitled ‘Ad hoc and inadequate,’ criticized Thailand’s treatment of refugees as being “fragmented” and thus leaving them vulnerable to abuse, exploitation and deportation.

“Burmese refugees in Thailand face a stark choice: they can stay in one of the refugee camps along the border with Burma and be relatively protected from arrest and summary removal to Burma but without freedom to move or work. Or, they can live and work outside the camps, but typically without recognized legal status of any kind, leaving them at risk of arrest and deportation. It is a choice refugees should not be compelled to make,” the report stated.