The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees considers the situation of between 110-150,000 Burmese refugees located in camps on the border with Thailand as one of 29 protracted refugee situations globally. And, according to East Asia Forum, there are also an additional 1.5-2 million refugees in Thailand and represent the ‘visible side of human rights abuse.’
Ruled by a military junta from 1962 to 2011, Burma, known locally and by the United Nations as Myanmar, has often been accused of violating human rights and the forcible relocation of civilians. Although an ostensibly civilian government was controversially elected in 2010, a quarter of seats in parliament as well as three cabinet seats are reserved for the army.
Other concerns include the use of forced labour, among them children, human trafficking and internal ethnic conflict. In an extensive post, Mary Ditton, a Senior Lecturer in Health Management in Australia, looks at the problem of internally displaced people and refugees:
Most of the self-settled migrants from Burma work in the manufacturing, food processing and agricultural industries throughout Thailand [...]. Further to the constant fear and threat of deportation, they work in poor conditions with neither basic rights of association, nor employee and health rights. [...] Only some forced migrants choose to officially seek asylum and reside under the protection of UNHCR. Other forced migrants decide to earn a living within the informal economy and endure the risks of being deported. This protracted refugee process means the actual refugee camp populations are made up of women, children, the elderly and disabled, as the able-bodied men and women seek work elsewhere. This ‘left behind’ population is prey to corrupt practices such as people and drug trafficking, smuggling, and child labour. The self-settled group is vulnerable to these practices as well, since they have no effective legal protection.
A group particularly at risk are children, especially from minority communities, as the Rohingya Arakanese Refugee Committee explains:
Last week the human rights group Arakan Project released a report on children’s rights in Northern Arakan State, in western Burma. Arakan State is home to about 735,000 Rohingya Muslims, one of the most oppressed ethnic minorities in Burma.
The report stated that over 40,000 Rohingya minority children in Arakan State do not have Burmese (or any), citizenship, despite being born and having parents who live in Burma. The children’s stateless status, along with several other draconian laws that discriminate against Rohingya, are in fact severe human rights violations and can have dire consequences on their health.
All Rohingya living in Burma, according to Arakan Project, are required to pay bribes to get permission to travel outside of their villages. Some are forced by the Army or border forces to build roads and guard and clean bases. Rohingya have been pushed off their land, and Arakan Project estimates that only 30% of Rohingyas have access to farmland, with the rest working mostly as casual day laborers.
A study in the United States of 400 refugee children has found that health is a serious concern even when they leave Thailand and Burma:
Some Burmese refugee children heading to the U.S. have toxic levels of lead in the blood, according to a study released this week in the journal Pediatrics. Researchers at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention measured lead levels in Burmese children living in Thai refugee camps. They found that children under age two were at highest risk. Fifteen percent of them had lead poisoning, as did five percent of all children. [...]
Lead poisoning is extremely toxic and can severe health effects on children, including brain damage, mental retardation and lowered IQ levels.
While many humanitarian groups have called for more aid for Burmese refugees displaced by years of conflict, there is some optimism now that a series of cease-fire agreements may offer some hope to deliver badly needed food, medicine and shelter supplies.
A recent field report published by Refuges International (RI) focused on two key goals: allowing humanitarian groups freedom of access to refugee areas and the removal of elaborate donor restrictions.
There are an estimated 500,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) in Burma, and three million Burmese refugees in other countries, according to their study. There are also some 800,000 stateless Rohingyas in the west of the country, who live in dire humanitarian conditions because of their lack of basic human rights.
With the decrease in fighting now is the time for the humanitarian community – led by the UN Resident Coordinator/Humanitarian Coordinator (RC/HC) and supported by key donors like the European Union, United Kingdom, and United States – to expand operations in Burma [...].
As part of my Fulbright research in Burma,Malaysia,and Thailand,a Burmese ethnic minority boy told me how he held on tight to his father’s back,as his father carried him through Burmese mountainous war zones to Thailand,leaving him alone in a refugee camp across the border. Why? Because the boy’s father saw how the Burmese government military had repeatedly torched his ethnic villages,schools,and never built them new schools. The only help any minority students have gotten in Burma has been from illegal forays by the Free Burma Rangers into Burma,risking their lives to take ethnic minority educators safely through dangerous conflict zones to be trained to start schools. Burmese minority educators shouldn’t have to risk their lives trying to educate their children.
Changing the lives of minority Burmese requires [Secretary of State] Clinton to also pressure Thailand and Malaysia to change their refugee policies,given that refugees continue to flow out of Burma and that it may take many years before Burma becomes safe for minority families. Thailand and Malaysia have deliberately refused to ratify the 1951 U.N. Convention protecting refugees,perhaps because they fear giving education and work rights to such an overwhelming number of Burmese minority refugees.
Following last year's visit by the U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, Andrew G. Lim writes on the Huffington Post that now is a “critical moment to press for further changes in the way that Myanmar's government deals with its ethnic minorities,” while Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, released from house arrest in 2010, this week addressed the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in a video message:
The Nobel Peace Prize Laureate acknowledged the changes in her country and urged the international community to do more to support further reform.