Myanmar + 1 more

Humanitarian assistance to the Burmese refugees living in the camps along the Thai/Burmese border

Situation Report
Originally published
Location of operation: THAILAND/Burmese border
Amount of decision: 4 650 000 euro
Decision reference number: ECHO/THA/BUD/2004/01000

Explanatory Memorandum

1 - Rationale, needs and target population:

1.1. - Rationale:

Following the crushing of a popular democracy uprising in 1988, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) used its ever-growing military superiority to persuade most of the ethnic groups opposing its rule to agree to cease-fires pending the outcome of a National Convention. The three main ethnic groups populating the Thai border area and represented in the refugee camps are the Mon, Karen and Karenni. All, under pressure, engaged in ceasefire talks with SLORC during the early 1990s. The Karenni agreed cease-fire terms in March 1995, the Mon in June 1995, but talks with the Karen failed (although a Karen National Union (KNU) delegation went to Rangoon in January 2004 to again negotiate a cease-fire after years of immobility in this front).

In spite of these cease-fire agreements, new refugees have continued to arrive all along the border as a result of the Burmese army efforts to physically assert its control in these areas by building infrastructure using the population as a conscripted labour force and by relocating villages into areas where they can be more easily controlled. Since 1996, 2,500 villages have been abandoned or destroyed by the Burmese army resulting in some 650,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) (source: Burmese Border Consortium, 2002) of which 364,000 live in relocation sites controlled by the army and 170,000 live in hiding and on-the run from the army.

In the last eight years, the number of refugees along the Thai/Burmese border has increased from 92,000 to 151,000 at the end of 2003, and the flow of new refugees has continued at a rate of 600-800 per month for the last three years. Altogether, it is estimated that one and a half million Burmese reside in Thai territory: around 150,000 live in the nine refugee camps, 50,000 are refugees who fail to make even a meagre living outside the camps, 200,000 are Shan minority refugees, and 1,000,000 are migrant workers living illegally in Thailand.

The majority of refugees have now been resident in the camps for over 10 years and their dependency on foreign aid is almost total (more than 40 donors are involved).

The camps are still vulnerable to incursions by the Burmese army and although no serious incidents have been reported since 1998, important restrictions and threats to the protection of these minorities remain:

- Thailand supported the ethnic armies until 1988; from 1988 to 1997 the Thais progressively benefited from logging and fishing concessions negotiated with Burmese army officers across the border. These business alliances brought about Thai tolerance of attacks by the Burmese army on minority armed groups. Then, from 1997 to 2001, the Thai government engaged more flexibly with the Burmese authorities and, in this period, restrictions on refugees increased. From 2002 on, the Thai authorities have decided not to interfere with the SPDC's (State Peace and Development Council) repressive policies towards opposition movements and with the gross violations of human rights being widely reported.

- At the same time, further official Thai restrictions on refugees in all border camps are being applied: i.e. no new arrivals are officially registered (except if in hot pursuit from fighting) although they are de facto tolerated in the camps; refugees do not receive any aid from the Thai authorities (they are told they are not welcome, but accepted on humanitarian grounds); refugees are not allowed to leave the camp; they do not officially get small land plots allocated to grow some vegetables; and the liberty with which NGOs have been working in the camps is being in some cases further restricted.

The Burmese Border Consortium (BBC) project was established in 1984 and was originally intended to supplement what the refugees themselves could supply through planting on the other side of the border. ECHO has been providing support in this part of the world since 1995 with food aid and cooking fuel as well as medical assistance.

Today the future of these refugees remains uncertain. An agreement between UNHCR and Myanmar government has been recently reached on beginning initial efforts to create conditions that could eventually allow the voluntary return of the refugees from camps. This return would however pose additional risks for the refugees: according to the Landmine Monitor Report 2003 nine out of fourteen states and divisions in Burma are mine affected with a heavy concentration along the Thai-Myanmar border which has been polluted by landmines and UXO (Unexploded Ordnance) for many decades. In 2002, there were at least 114 new landmine casualties reported in Thailand but the total number of casualties in Burma remains unknown.