The concerns of ethnic Karen refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) were raised on Tuesday, World Refugee Day, over the lack of a clear plan for the return and reintegration of those going back to their homelands, at a Karen Peace Support Network press conference in Rangoon.
Burmese military camps have also increased from 65 to 81 in Hpapun district alone, Karen sources say, a bolstered presence in the region that is eroding refugees’ confidence in the peace process.
“When the KNU [Karen National Union] and government signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement [NCA], many Karen people perceived there to be peace in their hometown, but that is a big misunderstanding,” KPSN spokesperson Saw Kyaw Zwar explained.
He pointed to chapter two of the NCA, which includes a provision on humanitarian assistance for both IDPs and refugees, saying: “In reality nothing has taken place on the ground.”
Declining conditions inside the camps
Food rations and aid for those inside refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border are slowly being cut, with KPSN raising the concern that refugees will be forced to return home as a result.
Burma’s oldest ethnic armed group, the KNU was one of eight signatories to the NCA in October 2015, but since then there has been little progress on paving the way for a safe return of refugees from the nine camps along Thailand’s western border with Burma. Instead, on the Burma side at least, IDPs from the Ee Tu Hta camp say the only concrete result has been “the increased pressure on refugees and IDPs to return to Myanmar.” At the Ee Tu Hta IDP camp, aid from the non-governmental Thai Border Consortium will come to a halt in September of this year.
Naw Blooming Night Zan of the Karen Refugee Council drew attention to the lack of oversight on the Burmese government side — that rations are to be cut but with no clear plan for the Ee Tu Hta IDPs to return to safe villages. He called on the government, as a matter of urgency, to develop a clear plan. “There has been preparation talks since 2012 but we have not seen any concrete conclusions yet,” he told press conference attendees.
Mental health issues, high suicide rates
On Monday, the International Organization for Migration published a report from inside the camps revealing that 28 refugees in the Mae La camp alone had killed themselves and 66 others had attempted suicide over the last two years.
“The age of refugees who committed suicide ranges from 16 to 70, but most of them are young people between the age of 16 and 25,” said Aw Net, chair of the Mae La refugee camp committee.
He said many of the issues contributing to the anxiety refugees are feeling — which in turn has driven some to take their lives — have included family problems over economic hardship, substance abuse and uncertainty over the future.
Families are currently receiving counseling and support from the International Red Cross and the Karen Refugee Council.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ Thailand spokesperson Vivian Tan said, “We know that suicide is a complex and serious issue especially in this protracted refugee situation. We will take in the assessment’s recommendations and work with our partners to further enhance suicide prevention strategies in the camps.”
No clear plan for returning home
Landmines, a lack of job opportunities, military confiscation of land and a lack of recognition of refugees’ education certificates earned inside the camps were just some of the worries raised on Tuesday.
When DVB asked the KPSN panel what services or support was being provided to refugees returning home, they answered that this is a matter that lacks clear assistance, whether from the government or NGOs. An independent consultant who has worked in Karen State, Felix Haas, added that development groups are wary of showing their support for livelihood projects or generating employment opportunities in the state due to several dynamics at play in the conflict-sensitive region.
The Rangoon Division government’s Karen ethnic affairs minister, Pan Thinzar Myo, admitted to the press that she was not up to date on Karen refugees’ issues but promoted a migrant worker resettlement plan in which 2,000 acres have been earmarked for agricultural development.
Karen women are calling for a hotline service or that at least a point of contact be provided for women who are fearful of sexual violence. Karen Women’s Organisation representative Ghoy Ghoy Htoo expressed concerns over “preparedness for refugees to return home,” for women and children that also need to be included in services provided in return areas.
“Women want to participate in the planning and monitoring of the repatriation process,” said Ghoy Ghoy Htoo.
There are currently 100,388 refugees in the camps along the Thai-Burma border, according to the UN refugee agency. Many having lived there for more than two decades.