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Ta Mla Saw was about seven when she and her family fled from Burmese troops attacking her village in the country’s ethnic Karen region, and crossed the river into Thailand to the safety of refugee camps dotted along the border.
Confined for decades in the camps and supported by aid agencies, the refugees nourished themselves with education and anything they could do to better their community, said Ta Mla Saw, who is now 34 and joint secretary for the Karen Women Organisation (KWO), a community social welfare group.
“I feel like the refugee camp was a learning place for us. We didn’t have to be afraid of anything life-threatening, we didn’t need to worry about the fighting, dying,” she said at KWO’s small office outside Mae Sot, a border town that serves as a base camp for aid agencies working with refugees from Burma.
“All you had to do was run for your life, then survive,” she said, her green polished nails flashing as she described the role of education in a future back in Burma. “It’s like preparing ourselves so we are ready when the time comes.”
Many of the mostly ethnic Karen refugees in the nine border camps have spent more than 25 years away from home, more than the average duration of the world’s longest refugee crises.
The World Humanitarian Summit is being convened in Istanbul later this month as the number of people who have been forced from their homes globally hits record levels.
At the first summit of its kind, governments will be asked to commit to tackling forced displacement in a new way that both meets the immediate needs of the world’s 60 million displaced, and builds their resilience and self-reliance.
The Thai camps offer useful pointers for a longer-term approach. Barred from leaving or seeking employment, refugees here have spent decades working with the aid groups providing services, learning everything from healthcare and food distribution to the nuts and bolts of democracy.
They elect leaders of the committees that run their camps, as well as KWO members such as Ta Mla Saw, whose organisation focuses on health, education, social welfare and women’s rights.
Working with foreign donors and organisations has required them to learn about transparency and accountability.
These lessons have put them ahead of most people in Burma, whose first civilian government took office in March after half a century of military rule.
“In Burma, everything was cloak and dagger,” said Sally Thompson, executive director of The Border Consortium, which provides food, shelter and other support to refugees in the camps. “You didn’t leave a paper trail, for your own protection. You didn’t talk about things openly, you didn’t share information because you couldn’t trust anybody.”
By contrast, refugees in the camps who receive assistance from the international community have to report it. “They have to be financially accountable,” she said.
‘Not the right time yet’
Burma has fought ethnic groups in its borderlands on and off for decades, causing huge displacement inside the country and forcing hundreds of thousands to seek refuge in Thailand.
More than 100,000 refugees have been resettled to third countries, with the United States taking in 80,000. The most educated — the camps’ teachers and medics — often moved first.
About 100,000 remain in the Thai camps, but with democratic changes afoot in Burma and a ceasefire inked last October, the possibility of going home is now on the horizon.
Nonetheless, the refugees worry about their safety back home and are reluctant to let go of their official refugee status for fear they will be unprotected if fighting erupts again.
Seven of the 15 armed ethnic groups invited to sign the ceasefire agreement declined, in part because of distrust of Burma‘s government and its still-powerful military. Sporadic fighting continues in Kachin and Shan states.
George, the 65-year-old vice chairman of the Karen Refugee Committee who goes by one name, said donors are interested in supporting refugees once they return to Burma.
But the respected elder, who fled Burma in 1975, tells them “it’s not the right time yet”, and says that refugees in Thailand still rely on their help.
“We have no income, no livelihoods here … We are not greedy, but we need to survive,” he said.
‘A good sell’ for donors
On the last day of March, dozens of refugee leaders met aid workers on the outskirts of Mae Sot to discuss their return.
Refugee representatives sat around a U-shaped table and heard updates about preparations for them to go home. They raised their hands to voice concerns and share findings from their own visits to suss out the situation in their villages.
“In the camps, every house has a toilet, but at home, in some villages, there are 30 houses but only two toilets,” said Zaw Gaw, general secretary of the committee for Nu Po camp south of Mae Sot, who visited Burma with 20 people in late March.
“Last year we heard about a diarrhoea outbreak because there were no latrines,” he said, speaking through a translator.
About 12,000 refugees have left the camps over the last four years, but it is unclear whether all of them have gone back to Burma, said Iain Hall, Mae Sot-based senior coordinator for the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR in Thailand.
Hall said it would be “grossly irresponsible” not to prepare for the refugees’ voluntary return to Burma, but there would be no pressure for them to leave.
“People do get anxious … This is normal, particularly for those that have been in the camps for so many years,” he said on the sidelines of the meeting.
No one would be sent back, he said. “If they don’t want to go home, they don’t go. We are here to protect them.”
With the war in Syria and the refugee crisis in Europe, it has become increasingly difficult to secure humanitarian funding for long-lasting refugee situations, said Hall, a 24-year veteran with UNHCR who has worked in Africa, Europe and Asia.
“We need to be smart,” Hall said, putting forward a case for why donors should support the Karen refugees.
“After 30 long years, when all we have in the world is displacement, here we have a glimmer of hope. Here we have a chance of success. That is a good sell.”