Since Myanmar became independent in 1947, conflict has existed between the Myanmar Government and minority groups. Landmines planted by both government forces and ethnic armed groups injure and kill fighters, villagers and animals. The conflict has caused many Shan, Mon, Kachin, Karen, Wa and Karenni people to flee their homes. There are more than half a million internally displaced people in Myanmar, 140,000 Myanmar refugees in Thailand, and around 70,000 in Bangladesh, along with large numbers of illegal migrants in Thailand.
Caring for refugees and displaced people
Many Myanmar refugees have been in camps in Thailand for more than 20 years. It is one of the most protracted refugee situations in the world. Refugees caught outside the camps may be arrested and deported. They have no access to employment, education or occupational training outside the camps.
Non-government organisations provide education, health and other essential services to the refugees. The Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC) provides food, shelter and some non-food items. The TBBC also supports the refugee management committees and programs that promote self-reliance while maintaining their culture and social connections.
The refugee diet is traditionally rice, salt, chilli and fish paste, supplemented with items gathered from the forest, plus any vegetables or livestock that can be cultivated, raised or hunted. Over the years that the camp has operated, the types and quantities of food have changed according to the level of access to supplementary food and the TBBC’s ability to provide it. From August 2008, people in camps were provided with the minimum nutritional standards set by UNHCR and the World Food Programme of 2,100 kilocalories per person per day. In early 2011, the food ration was reduced when TBBC’s budget was decreased, but the young and the elderly will still be provided with supplementary food.
Food rations changes (per person per month)
|Food item||Provided from August 2008||Adjustments in January 2011|
|rice||15 kg per adult; 7.5 kg per child under 5 years||13.5 kg per adult and older child; 7 kg per young child|
|fortified flour (AsiaMIX)||250 g per adult; 1 kg per child under 5 years||250 g per adult; 1 kg per young and older child|
|fish paste||750 g per person||750 g per adult and older child; 0.25 kg per young child|
|iodised salt||330 g per person||150 g per person|
|mung beans||1 kg per adult; 500 g per child under 5 years||Yellow split peas: 1 kg per adult and older child; 0.5 kg per young child|
|cooking oil||1 L per adult; 0.5 L per child under 5 years||0.8 L per person based on a sliding scale of household size|
|dried chillies||40 g per person||none|
|sugar||125 g per adult; 250 g per child under 5 years||125 g per adult; 250 g per older child and young child|
Shelter and utensils
Since 1997, when the Thai Government banned refugees from cutting bamboo, the TBBC has provided bamboo and thatch for them to build temporary houses similar to their traditional houses but large enough to meet the minimum international standard of at least 3.5 square metres of covered area per person. Cooking fuel, fuel-efficient stoves, cooking utensils, blankets and clothing are also provided.
The Refugee Camp Committees are responsible for the distribution of supplies. Each family has a ration book stating their entitlement, and they are called to the delivery point for distribution.
There are a range of programs designed to promote self-reliance, help reduce aid dependency and preserve traditional skills and culture for the residents, many of whom have lived in the refugee villages for most or all of their lives.
Community Agriculture and Nutrition project
The Community Agriculture and Nutrition project trains camp residents in farming techniques to improve access to nutritious foods and enhance income generation. The project encourages communities to sustainably manage resources, including saving seeds and growing a diverse variety of indigenous garden plants.
While we have been living in refugee camps we have slowly been losing our heritage, our wisdom, and our ways. For our children, rice comes from a warehouse, not grown on our own land by our own hands.
Saw Wah, David, Community Agriculture and Nutrition – Handbook, 2007
Longyi Weaving Project
The longyi is a traditional wraparound garment worn by both men and women in Myanmar. Since 2002, the TBBC has provided yarns, looms and financial support to women’s organisations to make one longyi for every adult over the age of 12. With a focus on women, it provides a source of income and maintains and develops traditional skills that may be otherwise lost.
Karen Young Women’s Leadership School
The Karen Young Women’s Leadership School is a 12-month skills and leadership development program specifically designed for young women in the refugee camps on the Thailand–Myanmar border. The women learn about gender issues and women’s rights and share this knowledge with their community. They gain practical leadership experience, increase their self-confidence and contribute to community development.
ADRA Vocational Training Program
The Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) offers vocational training classes in sewing, embroidery, welding, elderly and child care, basic auto mechanics, radio mechanics, cooking and baking, and hairdressing. Refugees build skills that assist them to earn an income, become self-sufficient and contribute to the community. Many of these courses attract formal accreditation in the Thai vocational training system.
Finding new homes – resettlement
The camps along the Thailand–Myanmar border represent one of the world’s longest running humanitarian crises. Sixty-five thousand people have been resettled in ten countries including the United States, Canada, Australia, Finland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden. However, due to new arrivals and births the population of the camps has not decreased.
‘There’s no hope in a refugee camp and I cannot go back to my country. My child has no opportunities in the camp. The most important thing for us is that my child gets an education,’ said Plu Reh, a Karenni schoolteacher, the 50,000th person to be resettled.
Refugees face huge challenges in settling into a new environment. After years of being confined to camps in remote areas, they often experience deep cultural shock and feel isolated and lonely. Many Myanmar refugees have settled in Australia, mainly in Sydney and Melbourne.