Saturday, February 16, 2008

Burma: Resettling Burmese refugees. Hopes, dreams, obstacles

A refugee who has been accepted for resettlement draws a tree as a part of an IOM cultural orientation project in Mae La refugee camp, Thailand

Ka Lae Min holds up his colourful drawing of a tree. “The three roots are myself, my family and my ethnicity, he said, “and the flowers are my achievements - I finished high school; am now free from the military junta in Burma [Myanmar]; and am on my way to America. And the buds,” the 30-year-old adds, “are my dreams - that I can get a real college degree, raise a family and some day, in the future, help the people in Burma establish democracy.”

Ka Lae Min’s drawing was produced as an exercise in a cultural orientation session for Myanmar refugees - mostly ethnic Karens from the eastern part of the country.

They are being prepared by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) - working under contract for the Thai government - for their departure from refugee camps on the Thai border to new homes and lives in the USA. The USA is one of some 11 countries, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Finland, which have taken in a total of some 40,000 Burmese (Myanmar) refugees since 2004.

“Nearly 15,000 refugees were resettled in 2007 with just over 10,000 going to the USA,” according to Pierre King, head of the IOM branch office in Mae Sot. “This year some 14,000-17,000 will be resettled in the USA alone.”

Officially there are some 140,000 Myanmar refugees in nine refugee camps on the Thai side of the Thai-Myanmar border.

Most of the refugees have painful stories to tell of fleeing the Burmese Army, of the heat of battle between the government and the Karen National Union (an armed rebel movement - KNU), and of lives and livelihoods wasted in refugee camps where movement is restricted and employment possible only if you sneak out illegally to do menial day labour.

Saw Eh Mwee, a Karen refugee and former rice farmer, told IRIN: “Those of us who left cannot go back.” He said he wants to be resettled in another country because “in Thailand we have no right of movement and for the past 20 years I have had no employment”.

Thai Di, another Karen refugee and a farmer, added: “My family and I are afraid to return to Burma… I am not educated, I am illiterate, but my hope is that by going to America my children will have a good education and a future.”


For those who desire to be resettled to the USA, Yoshimi Saita, head of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) field office in Mae Sot, told IRIN, their names and registry information are first checked by UNHCR and then given to the International Rescue Committee (IRC) which processes the refugees for the US government.

IRC does the paperwork, checks out family details, conducts a preliminary interview and writes a narrative of the family’s history. The information is then provided to the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) which conducts a final interview.

DHS criteria

An official at the US embassy in Thailand told IRIN: “At this point the only real consideration in the DHS interview is to discern whether the refugee has credible fear of persecution if he or she returns based on race, creed or religion.” He also said they would not accept refugees with criminal records.

The US government in the past two years has liberalised its provisions regarding refugees who have been deemed to have given “material support” to some six groups that have been fighting the Myanmar army over the years.

In the resettlement process IOM does everything from transporting the refugees for interviews, to giving them a basic cultural orientation (how to change planes, use Western-style toilets and kitchen appliances), to equipping them with “survival English” - key words and phrases to get them by as they enter a strange new world. Finally, it prepares the refugees for their travels and makes all flight arrangements.

Three camps

Most of the refugees who are currently being resettled are from three camps in Tak District - Nupo, Umpiem Mai and Mae La. According to the UNHCR, the three camps hold a total of some 70,000 refugees or 50 percent of the total in the nine current border refugee camps.

Until 22 January, interviews and processing was done in the camps themselves but IOM has now opened a processing facility in a huge unused factory building in Mae Sot, the largest city along the Myanmar border. It enables many of the steps in the resettlement process to be more centralised and efficient and reduces security concerns.

The most important IOM role in the resettlement process is overseeing complete medical check-ups, including chest X-rays which are done at a private hospital in Mae Sot. If a refugee is found to have tuberculosis or another disease, he is not rejected but his departure is delayed until he undergoes treatment. HIV status is tested, but is not a barrier to resettlement in the USA. IOM provides AIDS awareness and prevention briefings before departure.

Three options

Some have criticised the resettlement process, but as Hans Beckers, IOM regional programme coordinator for resettlement and voluntary returns, told IRIN:

“There are three options: Return to their country?” He says it is not an option now or for the forseeable future.

“Integrate into Thai society?” The government is unwilling to allow it at this time.

“Or resettle to a third country with the opportunity for more productive lives.”

Disclaimer:This material comes to you via
IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.

Photo: Copyright