For more than 20 years, refugees from Burma have been fleeing to Thailand to seek refuge from the practices of human rights abuse, forced labour, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, and extrajudicial killing, carried out by the authoritarian regime in Burma. Of the hundreds of thousands of Burmese who currently reside in Thailand, some 150,000 live in refugee camps, where opportunities for durable solutions to their protracted displacement have, until recently, been scarce. Since 2005, however, efforts to resettle considerable numbers of Burmese refugees to third countries have been underway.
As the resettlement program gathers momentum and people prepare to depart for a new life in third countries, there is a clear need to understand the impact on camp management and services. For many people, resettlement offers renewed hope, opportunities, and a permanent solution away from prolonged encampment. However, the departure of skilled, educated, and experienced camp staff and community leaders from camp programs and services has generated concerns about how best to mitigate the negative impacts on service delivery to the remaining camp population.
The goal of this study, contained in the CCSDPT Terms of Reference, was to a carry out a review of the impact of the resettlement of Burmese refugees residing in camps along the Thai-Burmese border on camp management and services. The tasks were to assess the actual and anticipated impacts of resettlement on the remaining population, to study interventions already being undertaken or under consideration, and to make recommendations for a strategic response.
There were quantitative and qualitative dimensions to the research. Quantitatively, statistical data were gathered on the number of educated/skilled/experienced people in each camp, the numbers required to run camp programs and services, and the numbers of those who have already begun the resettlement process. Analysis of this data allowed for estimated projections of future educated/non-educated populations in 2007 and 2008. The impact of resettlement was also investigated qualitatively, in order to understand more precisely the realities of program and service delivery. During the course of all interviews, the researchers emphasised the neutrality of the study with regards to the resettlement issue, allowing respondents to identify their own assessments and priorities.
Current Context of Resettlement
Resounding themes throughout the course of the consultation illustrate the context within which resettlement is occurring in Thailand. First, it is the overall situation in which refugees find themselves today that contributes to their decisions to seek resettlement, or even consider it, as an option. The continuing conflict in Burma has led to prolonged encampment in Thailand _ for long-term camp residents, for over 20 years. At present, camp residents are restricted in their movements. In general, these are the factors that are encouraging refugees to resettle, rather than a deep-seated desire to move permanently to a third country. Second, and related, uncertainty about the future informs every aspect of refugees' decisions about resettlement, from deciding whether or not they should apply at all, to considering when they should apply (immediately or in a few years time), with which family members they should apply, and to which resettlement country they should apply.
Impact of Resettlement: Overall Observations
From 2005 to early May 2007, no more than 5,500 Burmese refugees from all nine camps departed for resettlement to third countries. Despite this small number, which represents 4.2% of the registered camp population, the impact of resettlement is evident, even in those camps where the resettlement process is in very early stages. In nearly every camp, the educated members of the population have been interested in, been submitted for, been accepted, and have departed
for resettlement in disproportionately higher percentages than the rest of the population. Averaged across nine camps, only 2.4% of those with no education have departed for resettlement, while 11.5% of those with a post-10 education have departed. Related, those working for NGOs have departed, and applied for resettlement, in higher proportions than the rest of the population. And while the education level of the resettling population can be quantified with relative ease, and the number of NGO workers can be estimated to some extent, it is also the case that individuals with experience, authority, and leadership qualities are also applying for resettlement in higher proportions than the rest of the population.
Factors Influencing the Depletion of Skilled Workers
There are three primary reasons that explain the depletion of skilled and educated residents from the camps. First, the educated want to resettle in higher percentages than the total camp population. It is therefore not surprising that, averaged across all nine camps, 38% of the entire population has expressed an interest in resettlement, while 61% of the post-10 population has. Second, UNHCR's resettlement criteria follow a 'first-in, first-out' procedure, wherein refugees who arrived in Thailand first are among the first to be submitted by UNHCR to resettlement countries. In camps where the educated have been in the camps the longest, they will have the opportunity to resettle first. Third, some resettlement countries emphasise the importance of integration potential in selecting candidates for resettlement.
Limited labour pool and the difficulty of replacement
As the skilled and educated leave, it is increasingly difficult to find replacements within the existing population. Since refugee camps are not an open labour market, there is a limited supply of skilled workers for the jobs necessary in the camp population. In some camps, virtually every post-10 graduate is already employed.
Research conducted for this report shows that of a total camp employee population of just over 7,000, approximately 911 require a post-10 education in order to maintain the current level of services in the camps. A projection of the departures of the post-10 educated population reveals that within six months, the post-10 population will have decreased by 38% across all camps, while the total population of the camps will only have decreased by 10%. In addition, although a decrease in the total population of the camp will mean that some camp-based positions will not be necessary, the need will not decrease exactly commensurate with the total population, thus heightening the problem of fewer skilled workers. Within 18 months (by the end of 2008), the number of post-10 camp residents will be at a critically low level; unless responses are crafted and implemented immediately, there will not be sufficient numbers of appropriately educated camp residents to carry out necessary camp functions.
Stakeholders throughout the camps, across the sectors, reported the importance not only of educational qualifications (which are easily quantified) but also the value of long-term experience, authority, and status (which are not).
Further, while NGOs have already begun to respond to the loss of workers by developing short-term trainings, these do not easily replace institutional memory and tacit knowledge built up through a capacity-building approach over many years. While NGOs are already faced with the task of replacing experienced and educated workers, many report the further challenge of retaining replacement staff. This is because NGOs are starting to witness (immediate or anticipated) the resettlement of 'second-liners' or those who have been trained as replacements.
Mood in the camps in the context of resettlement
The mood in the camps in the context of resettlement is mixed. For a population that has been in prolonged limbo, resettlement represents the promise of a better future with opportunities for a new life, particularly in the absence of other durable solutions. However, it also represents the threat of losing the dream of return home, and the fear of the unknown. Interviews with camp residents demonstrated the contrasting emotions of a sense of hope and expectation for those resettling, depression and anger for those rejected, anxiety for those who are still waiting to hear the final decision, and confusion for those who have not yet decided what they want to do.