Even though the government in Myanmar shows clear signs of moderation, it is too early for the more than 130.000 refugees, who have lived for years in camps in Thailand, to return.
“The areas in south eastern Myanmar, where the refugees come from, are characterised by severe poverty, looming unrest and lack of work. It can take years before the situation is good enough so the refugees can return.”
That is the message from the Director of The Border Consortium (TBC), Sally Thompson, who recently visited Copenhagen. TBC is a group of 10 international NGO’s, among others DanChurchAid, which for many years has supported refugees in the border area of Thailand/Myanmar.
29 year wait
The first refugees arrived in Thailand 29 years ago and have been preparing to return home ever since. But according to Sally Thompson they will have to be patient a bit longer. The visit to Copenhagen a part of a trip through Europe where she has an important message for the Western donors:
“It is important to continue to support the Myanmar refugees until the situation is ready for them to return home. They have participated in the running of the camps and developed strong democratic resources. If we don’t keep on supporting them now, we run the risk of losing those resources,” says the TBC Director.
Fear of conflict
There are many factors that make it difficult for the refugees to return to Myanmar now. For one thing there are still smouldering conflicts between ethnic groups and the Myanmar army. In addition, the warring parties have, over the years, spread landmines over large areas. That limits access to fertile farming land and makes it unsafe to live in these areas.
“People fled because they were subjugated by the army which is still visible in the villages. They confiscate land and force people to work for nothing, or a very low wage. Before the army is gone, people don’t dare to return,” explains Sally Thompson.
At the same time, development is very slow in the south eastern part of Myanmar that is still a rural region with very few technological tools. There are no jobs for the returning refugees and disease, floods, drought as well as unstable food prices make it difficult for the already hard pressed population to manage.
The Myanmar Government has no overall strategy for how the region is to be developed and has emphasised that the area isn’t ready to receive the many newcomers.
Preparations are intensified
TBC has for many years been responsible for food and shelter in the camps that are located on the Thai side in the border to the two Myanmar provinces Karenni and Karen. But gradually as the refugees have settled down and become more self-sufficient, the focus has shifted to preparing the refugees for the life and the situation they can expect to return to.
“There are annual elections for the chairman of the local communities in the camp. The inhabitants have built up a functional health system and school system themselves, and everyone takes responsibility in their own way and contributes to the community. Everyone wants very much to contribute when they return to the communities in Myanmar someday.”
Previously it was the policy that all families in the camp should have the same things. But with small kitchen gardens, raising pigs or small shops, several of the inhabitants are now able to support themselves. Therefore, only the very weakest receive help. And through the small communities the inhabitants of the camp now help to distribute the help:
“No matter which household you visit in the camp, they have seized the opportunities that were offered. No one sits on his hands and everyone takes responsibility for making the community function. When someone needs help, the camp always finds ways to help them," finishes Sally Thompson.
What we do
DanChurchAid supports refugees in the Thai camps through TBC as well as needy in south eastern Myanmar, with among other things tents, food and help to organise themselves.
In the areas of conflict in Myanmar we support citizenship and strengthening civil society. A series of projects have also been started to create greater food security by, among other things, providing the local farmers with goats and rabbits.
Myanmar is one of the world’s most heavily mined countries. DanChurchAid’s demining experts work to inform the local authorities and population about how to avoid accidents. That is not least important when the many refugees begin to return to their villages.
In addition we help victims of landmine accidents through a rolling prosthetics clinic.