Over 700,000 stateless persons in Burma

June 17, 2009 (DVB), Burma has the world's third largest population of stateless persons according to the UN refugee agency, while at the same time Burmese refugees were last year the main beneficiaries of UN resettlement programmes.

The issue of stateless persons in Burma was thrown into the spotlight earlier this year when around 1000 ethnic Muslim Rohingya refugees from western Burma washed up on Thailand's shores, only to be towed back out to sea and set adrift by Thai authorities.

The incident shed light of the plight of the Rohingya, who are not recognized by the Burmese government and suffer frequent discrimination due to their lack of legal status.

In total, around 723,571 people are considered to be stateless in Burma, according to an annual Global Trends report released yesterday by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The report warned however that figures do not "capture the full magnitude of the phenomenon of statelessness – a significant number of stateless people have not been identified and statistical data on statelessness is not yet available in many cases".

Alongside the Rohingya, other ethnic groups such as Burmese Chinese, Burmese Indian and Panthay are not recognized by the government.

Burma is also home to over 500,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), the majority of which are in eastern Karen state, who have been forced out of their homes largely by fighting between the Burmese army and the Karen National Union.

No data was available for the total number of Burmese refugees living abroad, although Burma is thought to contribute the majority of the total 3.5 million stateless persons living in neighbouring Thailand.

That situation has been compounded by the exodus of around 4000 civilians from eastern Karen state in recent weeks who are fleeing a government offensive against the Karen National Union.

Furthermore, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) on Monday warned that even children with migrant status in Thailand were struggling to access education.

However around 23,200 Burmese benefited from UNHCR-facilitated resettlement programmes last year, the majority of these departing from Thailand. This, according to the report, was the world's highest proportion.

Globally, however, the situation last year for refugees was bleak, with a total of 42 million people had been uprooted by conflict.

The UNHCR found that numbers of IDPs in the world was at an historical high of more than 28 million, catalysed latterly by the intensification in recent months of conflict in Pakistan's Swat valley, which had forced some 2 million to leave their homes, and in Sri Lanka where 300,000 were held in intenrment camps following government offensives against the Tamil Tigers.

Reporting by Francis Wade

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