In an interview on July 20, 2015 with BBC NEWS current Senior General Min Aung Hlaing of Myanmar stated until there is a lasting peace agreement and a ceasefire among ethnic groups that the Military would not leave the political arena over security concerns. "It could be five years or 10 years - I couldn't say," he said.
Perhaps the question that should be asked is–will forced or voluntary repatriation happen before Myanmar is safe for all its returning ethnic groups?
In February earlier this year in agreement with the Thai government UNHCR did a headcount survey of the camps near Mae Hong Son. Unfortunately as part of terms with the Thai government that survey did not allow for registration of any new refugees, a registration policy the Thai government has had in place since 2005.
In discussions about the survey with UNHCR Mae Hong Son, they stated, “The unofficial number is hovering around 109,000 with approximately 60% registered and 40% unregistered.”
In April, soon after the survey was complete, a fire sparked in the camps and spread across camp Ban Mai Nai Soi effecting nearly 250 families and destroying 194 homes belonging to 1,065 refugees and damaging one primary school that JRS supports.
18-year old Karenni high school student Wi Reh, who identified himself of Myanmar nationality, shared his story with JRS, “I was away when the fire burned down and I came back to see my house and the whole section was burned down. I felt shock and all my things were destroyed, I didn’t know where my parents were but I went to my aunt’s house and found them there.” Upon arrival in July the houses have been rebuilt and the damage done to the school supported by JRS has been repaired.
The Border Consortium, the biggest supporter of Mae Hong Son, and arguably the largest NGO in the camps have recently been forced into reducing its assistance. Speaking with Karenni Refugee Committee chairman Mann Saw, he elaborated further, “It is true that donors are more interested in Myanmar because they think that change is happening in Myanmar and after helping us on the border for over 30 years they may be tired…but two to three years of change is not enough for us to return.”
The reduction in assistance has come up in the form of a rationcut. A food rationcut in the camp has happened and rations went from 10 kilos a month to 9 kilos. Prior to this cut the sentiment in the camp on rations, while positive, was that the amount given wasn’t enough to get through the month. Families typically had to buy food somehow, find alternative ways to grow food, risk going outside the camp for work or simply not eat. Now these cuts will only see the food rations able to last between 16-18 days.
The reduction of food and lack of livelihoods access will intensify the problems for those in the camp and raises the possibility refugees will risk going outside the camp to look for other ways to survive. In 1989 Thailand banned harvesting of timber in the country thus deforestation is illegal but there are concerns among camp leaders that without access to food those within the camps will consider leaving to perform such work. Speaking with Camp Committee head Moe Bu, she said, “Due to more reduction in rice and charcoal, we see more people going out of the camp to look for work…. Some may clear the land around the camp for planting for their food… some may cut trees for firewood…. We are refugees and as Thai law we cannot go out of the camp. So, we will face problem with Thai policy or law…for deforestation and going out of the camp.”
As part of JRS accompaniment our staff offer psychosocial and pastoral services to those in the camps. Sr. Evelyn and Sr. Ana conduct family friendship meetings with women, children, men, and families to talk about the issues in the camp through group or individual dialogue. After one of the meetings JRS spoke with Beh Meh, a young Karenni woman with children, about the rice reductions and she said, “We will be hungry and dying. Many people will cry and not know what to do.”
Many of these people affected by the rationcut will see ripple effects from daily services provided in the camps.
JRS Thailand works in two camps in Mae Hong Son province: Ban Mai Nai Soi (camp one) and Ban Mae Surin (camp two). The schools in the camps are run by the Karenni Education Department (KnED) and are supported by JRS. The food rations have raised concerns among the teaching staff as they expect many students to consider dropping out of school to try and access a livelihood. Pasquino, a high school head teacher in Ban Mai Nai Soi with KnED, told JRS “The students could leave because they do not have enough food and their parents cannot support them so they have to care of themselves and also maybe their families.”
Another problem for better education standards in the camp is that many of the high skilled workers and teachers have already been resettled. This has created a disadvantage for those still in the camp as the lack of continuity within the schools staff leaves many teachers under trained or with little experience. Any repatriation ideas for convergence on education with Myanmar and its government will be a lengthy process as there are currently no alignments between the education systems, including the curriculum in use and the language of instruction.
UNHCR released a strategic roadmap for voluntary repatriation for Myanmar refugees earlier this year and presented it to the refugee leadership and NGOs. Just recently in the stakeholders meeting on July 28, UNHCR presented a draft “operational plan for voluntary repatriation” to refugee committees, CBOs and NGOs representatives.
Luiz, the secretary of the Karenni Refugee Committee (KnRC) said, “Looking at the situation in Myanmar and the peace talk, the plan is too soon. We are concerned if UNHCR makes the timeline for its operational plan and includes in its strategic roadmap”. Mann Saw, the chairperson of KnRC said “it is UNHCR’s operational plan, not ours. But our concern is what role and how we (KnRC) would be involved in the operational plan. Those have yet to be discussed with UNHCR.” UNHCR in Mae Hong Son said that having the operational plan does not necessarily mean that refugees go home tomorrow, and it is better to have planning.
Rosalyn, the JRS Project Director in Mae Hong Son, said “It is always good to have a plan, so that it can be a guide when the time comes, because as of now no one can tell what will happen soon. However, it is important that we have to involve the stakeholders in the plan so that everybody is clear of what the plan is. We need to consult with them…. not only just inform them of our plan.”
Looking ahead to November’s election based on testimonies from the leadership structure in the camp and with young people the broad sentiment in the camp about the election is cautious at best and downright disbelief of the intentions of the Myanmar government at worst.
Mann Saw of Karenni Refugee Committee stated strongly his concerns about the upcoming election with JRS. He said, “I think nothing has changed with the election because it is only “part democracy” as the military can change the results. The most important thing is the constitution. The Myanmar constitution cannot chose who the General of the military is so in a sense the elected Prime Minister cannot stop the Military from attacking ethnic groups. No power over the military poses the largest risk to democracy.”
Is the border being repatriated a long way off? It depends…It depends on whether or not those in the camps are able to develop new survival mechanisms.
By Nick Jones- Regional Advocacy & Communications Officer