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Nearly 50,000 Burmese nationals last year applied for asylum with the UN refugee agency, around three-quarters of these in Malaysia alone.
The figures released by the UN’s refugee agency rank Burma as the world’s second-highest country in terms of the number of people who sought asylum in 2008-2009. Zimbabwe was by far the highest, with 158,200, while Burma counted 48,600, Eritrea 43,300 and Ethiopia 42,500.
Malaysia received the largest number of new requests from any nationality, with 40,000 people last year lodging asylum claims. Of these, 37,600 people were from Burma. Burmese nationals also had one of the highest Total Recognition Rates (TRR), with 80 to 90 percent of asylum claims granted out of a world total of 47 percent.
At the end of 2009, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) counted 496,542 Burmese nationals of a 50 million-strong population as “people of concern”, 42 percent of which are refugees documented by the UN. The UN also assists 67,290 internally displaced persons (IDPs), although there are estimates of more than one million IDPs spread across the country.
By contrast, Iraq, with a population of less than 31 million, had more than 3.5 million “people of concern”, while Afghanistan had 3.2 million and Pakistan three million.
The UNCHR’s acknowledgement that the Burmese refugee count may be well below actual figures was echoed by David Mathieson, Burma consultant at Human Rights Watch.
“How many refugees flee into China and don’t seek formal protection under the UNCHR?” he said. “How many refugees are unregistered in camps along the Thailand border? It’s about 40,000. India too, and how many Rohingya in Bangladesh aren’t formally registered?”
He said that one of the key problems for the UNHCR is that it “works through governments, and if governments put the impediments in its path then there’s very little they can do. They could advocate harder, but then there’s a balance between pushing hard and being kicked out of the country”.
Concerns have arisen about the effect that Burma’s elections later this year will have on the flow of refugees out of the country. Aid groups have warned that the government’s attempts to bring ethnic ceasefire armies under the wing of the Burmese military may result in fighting, which could then trigger an exodus of refugees across the border.
But, said Mathieson, the connection between refugee flows and the elections may be misguided. “If there’s fighting, then yes, but is that to do with the elections or is it just one part of the elections which is the border security?” he said. “I think they’re connected, but not intimately connected.”
What might instead happen, he argued, is that migrant workers living in neighbouring countries could return to Burma prior to the elections in order to lodge their vote. “Some people I’ve spoken to say they’ll go back to vote, or be seen to vote, at least to get their name put down so they or their families don’t get in trouble,” he said.