EU pushes for Burmese refugee work rights

Nov 30, 2009 (DVB), The European Union is seeking to allow Burmese refugees currently confined to camps along the Thailand-Burma border to work legally in Thailand.

The move comes after a trial period in which Burmese refugees were allowed out of the populous Mae La camp, close to Mae Sot in western Thailand. Current Thai regulations prohibit the estimated 140,000 Burmese refugees from leaving camps along the border.

"This is approved by the [Thai] government and the refugees have official approval to leave the camp," said David Verboom from the European Commission Humanitarian Aid (ECHO). "It's a very successful project and hopefully it will be extended."

The scheme has been heralded by many as a progressive shake up of the way Thailand and its aid organisations deal with the thousands of civilians fleeing conflict in Burma.

Jack Dunford, executive director of the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC) confirmed that the scheme was to "give the refugees a more meaningful life but also to reduce their dependency on international aid".

The scheme was first suggested in 2005 by border organisations such as TBBC. At present Thai authorities forbid the residents of the camps to leave and to seek employment, a situation which has made life difficult given the limited rations and work opportunities afforded to them.

One former Mae La resident told DVB that she only received rice, chilli, beans and fish paste to eat, but would often sneak out to work on nearby farmland for around $US2 per day.

According to Dunford, however, the Thai government "is concerned about possible pull factors".

"Thailand is always concerned that if you give refugees more rights, then more will come. It is also worried about impacts of this on the local economy."

There are approximately 140,000 refugees living in camps along Thailand's border with Burma, many of whom have fled decades-old fighting in the country's eastern Karen, Karenni and Shan states.

Dunford notes that this is a small number compared with the numbers of migrant workers who flock to Thailand from across Southeast Asia.

He added that "there is a realization that there are growing numbers and there is reluctance from the international donors to go on funding this".

"They [the refugees] are not going back in the short term and there is a genuine desire to find a more human cost-effective way of supporting these people".

Reporting by Joseph Allchin

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