Current Issues in Refugee Education

Burmese Refugee In Thailand

Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights — Article 14

Introduction to Burmese Refugee Camps in Thailand

Thailand, in response to the need of these Burmese asylum seekers, have protected Burmese refugees for both humanitarian and political reasons by providing temporary asylum in refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border. Among these refugees, there are roughly 120,000 Burmese refugees in nine official camps on the Thai-Burma border (TBC, 2015).

Majority of these refugees are Karen (also called kayin, 79.1%) and Karenni (also called kayah, 10.4%), while the minority are Burman (also called Barmar, 2.8%) and Mon (0.8%) (TBC, February 2015).Most refugees are either Cristian (51%) or Buddhist (36%) in the camps. However, in camps the Tak province (including Mae La, Umpiem Mai, and Nu Po camps), there are a significant number of Muslim communities from 12 to 24%, while from 40 to 56% of residents are Christian, from 32 to 41% are Buddhist (UNHCR 2006). First established in the 1980s, Mae La refugee camp has grown into the largest of the nine refugee camps along the Thailand-Myanmar border. The Royal Thai Government (RTG) administers the refugee camps and Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC) also provide food, shelter and non food items to refugees and displaced people from Myanmar. 
The RTG refers to them as ‘temporary shelters’ and the refugees as ‘displaced persons fleeing fighting’. The terms 
emphasize the fact that the camps were intended to be impermanent structures whose inhabitants would return home when the conditions allow.
As documented by the United Nations, most residents in Mae La refugee camp arrived here after being forced to flee Myanmar due to violence against them. 

Problems of Refugee Camps in Thailand

"Despite decades of experience with hosting millions of refugees, Thailand’s refugee policies remain fragmented, unpredictable, inadequate and ad hoc, leaving refugees unnecessarily vulnerable to arbitrary and abusive treatment. "
— Human Rights Watch, 2012

“Refugees are banned from leaving the camp to seek jobs. Refugees are banned from leaving their homes from 6 pm to 6 am,” he said. “Only those who have special conditions such as medical treatment or other emergency cases can travel, but need to seek official permission." 
— Saw Honest, chairman of the Mae La refugee camp, July 2nd, 2014

    1. Restrictions
Refugees were allowed to travel outside the camps for food before 1995 when Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) attacked Karen refugee camps in attempts to threaten them into returning to Burma, which became a regular factor impacting the border security (Caouette & Pack, 2002). Since then, the village-type settlement transferred to large and closed camps and resident were more restricted. In 2003, the Thai government stopped allowing UNHCR to conduct refugee status determination interviews for Burmese refugees and claimed that all refugees should be sheltered together, which led to plans to move refugees in urban area to refugee camps. And Burmese refugees are not allowed to leave refugee camps without a pass nor to obtain employment in Thailand outside camps. 
Meanwhile, their access to refugees’ political activities is limited and their rights to criticize the Burmese government is curtailed (UNHCR, 2004). The forced relocation had brought about many problems and refugees are exposed to human rights violations, including protection and security issues due to inter-ethnic tensions, restricted access to information as well as lack of educational opportunities (Colm, 2004), which applies to refugees in general. In addition, in July, 2008, Thai security forces in the Mae Hong Son, one of the northern provinces of Thailand, forced repatriation of 35 Karen refugees to Myanmar. And because international organizations such as the UN, the UNHCR, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have also faced restrictions in Thailand, the vast majority of encamped refugees go without any direct protection from these international organizations (Human Rights Watch, 2007). 
2. Living conditions
In terms of living conditions, limitations of space and food shortage are big problems in the camps, which is partly resulted from overpopulation of refugees. Three of the camps including Mar La, Tham Hin and Ban Don Yang are overcrowded and people there can hardly have privacy due to a lack of personal space when living with their family members (Human Rights Watch, 2012e).
With few sources of income, refugees become dependent on aid agencies. Since TBC remains the only agency responsible for providing food and shelters to refugees in the camps, its decrease of food ration that have fallen substantially below minimum daily nutritional levels due to the funding cuts leads to food shortage in the camps (see TBC, 2013). 

    3. Outcomes
Strict restrictions and poor living conditions have created many problems in Burmese refugees. By evaluating 495 Karenni refugees in the camps in Mae Hong con province, researchers found that mental health issues including anxiety symptoms, depression and post-traumatic disorder (PTSD) were prevalent among them due to insufficient food, restrictions of movement and trauma events (Cardozo, Talley, Burton, & Crawford, 2004). 
The Life Stories of Burmese Refugees in Thailand

"We don't know what our future will bring." — Mr. Yee, hairdresser

A story of a Burmese refugee woman 

Jolie visited one of the world’s longest-running refugee situations on the Thai-Burma border, where an estimated 120,000 Burmese refugees have been living in camps, some for more than 30 years. 
During her trip to the Karenni camp, Jolie visited one such family, whose elderly matriarch Baw Meh said the family had lived in the refugee camp for 18 years, having arrived to Ban Mae Nai Soi in 1996.

A story of a hairdresser family
In 1998 ,  NGOs were given permission to start vocational training programs in the camps. Aimed at providing refugees with hard skills and increasing their self-reliance, subjects have included cooking, baking, sewing, hairdressing, electronics and mechanics. 

A story of Teh Teh Tong, a Burmese boy in refugee camp
Living with parents and six siblings in the Burmese refugee camp for years, Teh Teh Tong talked about space limitation in the camp and his condition of not being able to work outside. And in general, children in refugee camps face many challenges, including drug and achohol abuse, lack of activities, and adolescent pregnancy. 


Although refugee camps are hardly natural places to live, thousands of people have been born in the camps and never left. For many refugee children, refugee camps are where they were born and where they grew up. For them, the only reality they have seen exists within the fences of refugee camps. So what kinds of education they receive and what kinds of values conveyed to them not only decide how they can use their skills learned in camps to adapt to their life from short-term survival to long-term development after returning to their home country or going to a third country, but also create a sense of security and hope that is often lacking in refugee settings as well as their knowledge and attitudes towards their home country, host country and the whole world. 

Read more about Education in Burmese Refugee Camps! 

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