Karen Refugees and Education at the Thai-Burma Borderlands

Given the diversion of the international funds into Burma, community-based education across the Thai-Burma border is the solution for relieving human insecurity of this vulnerable migrant group at the borderlands.


Mobility, only a halfway through human right 

Mobility gives freedom for human beings. However, it is not a human right. Article 13 of the 1948 Universal Declaration for Human Rights defines only half of this right to mobility: a right to leave and return to your own country of origin but not a right to reside in another country.

This creates ‘floating’ people who are refugees, internally displaced or undocumented migrants and who are not protected within the relevant countries’ legal realms.

Human rights cannot solve this fundamental problem that clashes with state sovereignty. Humanitarianism comes in and each donor institution has its own agendas and priorities. Refugees’ lives are totally depending on external aids.

Ban Dong Yang

According to the UNHCR, as of January 2014, Thailand hosts, officially, 136,499 refugees, 4,712 asylum seekers and 506,197 stateless persons. On the Thai-Burma border alone, in June 2014, there were 75,463 registered refugees along the various camps. The Border Consortium (TBC) has a higher figure of 119,461 caseload as it is based on rations including both registered refugees and not registered Burmese citizens or Thai residents.

BDY Camp is located at the edge of the western Thai-Burma border. Ban Don Yang is ‘rubber tree village’ in Thai. The camp was formed in 1997 with the merger of the Thu Ka and Hti Ta Baw camps.


[Karen Refugee Camps in the Thai-Burma Border]


[Source: Karen Refugee Committee Education Entity]

Given its isolated location, there are fewer IOs and NGOs active in BDY compared to larger camps like Mae La, which hosts over 20,000 refugees. To make matters worse, many of the NGOs are now reducing aid or channelling their resources through Yangon, the official channel for Overseas Development Assistance, in the hope that there would be a new democratic leadership after the election in 2015.

With one of the major NGOs working on education, ZOA, pulling out, refugee youth are left with no funds to run the school while others are still looking after primary education.

The Right to Remain

Despite temporary returnees attesting to safer conditions in Burma, militarisation and the absence of the rule of law prevent returnees from enjoying basic rights and freedoms. UNHCR also has noted that conditions are, as yet, unsuitable for refugee to return. In the small survey and focus group discussions of 26 refugee youth aged between 15 and 26, the refugees have indicated strong reluctance to return to Burma.

There is no sign that UNHCR and other external service providers are preparing the refugees for the likely scenario of forced repatriation by Thai and/or Burmese governments.

Several current and former BDY camp residents express a strong sense of distrust about the UNHCR’s roles. UNHCR focuses on the collection and recording of the biometric data while talking to both Thai and Burmese governments. In this process, what UNHCR can also do is to keep the international (donor) community informed of the needs and security conditions of the Karens from diverse groups from a refugee’s perspective.


Education for Better Human Security

The need for education is closely linked to different aspects of human security. The lack of personal, community and food safety, healthcare or clean environments make it difficult for students to achieve a certain academic standard. A low level of education, then, prevents the youth from obtaining gainful employment and basic income. It also prevents individuals from protecting and preserving their cultural heritage and identities.

When the adult population is disempowered, their political representation and security ultimately withers away. As such, education is both the cause for and consequence of the protection of human security and sustainable development for the Karen.

The fear of repatriation, more than that of persecution as in the 1951 Refugee Convention, and the human insecurities of the BDY residents are real. Because of that, the camp population has indeed decreased over the past few years and ‘brain drain’ is a notable trend.

The international community, before they divert the funding from the camps to Burma, must make sure at least basic physical personal security, infrastructure and most importantly, schools and quality training programmes are in place.

Whatever the government will be in Burma after the next election, it will not have immediate quality human capital in the near future as education reforms need long-term effort and persistence. Businesses and civil society can also help greatly in this area by investing in better skilled labour for Burma.

Full report can be found HS of Karen Refugees.

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