|The Jesuit Refugee Service project director gives a vocational education lesson in Ban Mai Nai Soi, Mae Hong Son, Thailand. (Jesuit Refugee Service)|
|The refugee community fears cutbacks may lead to higher student dropout rates, premature return and less preparation for a durable solution. JRS partners with the Karenni Education Department (KnED) to implement education programs in two Mae Hong Son camps where the majority of the refugee population hails from eastern Burma's Kayah state. But JRS has been unable to attain the full amount —roughly $800,000 — needed to maintain the programs in 2012.|
(Mae Hong Son, Thailand) August 27, 2012 — A funding pitfall in education for the refugees along the Thai-Burma border may negatively affect preparedness for return.
The focus of the international donor community is shifting from the camps towards inside Burma, and a lack of sufficient resources has forced many organizations working in the camps, such as Jesuit Refugee Service, to make cutbacks to critical programs like schooling.
"It will be difficult for young people [to return to Burma] if they don't have an education," said Lee Reh a Karenni student who has lived in to the camp since 2001. JRS hopes that support for education can be bolstered so that the school programs, and students, do not suffer.
Inside Burma, the Peace Donor Support Group, including the government of UK, Norway, Australia, EU, UN and World Bank, have offered a net total reaching nearly $500 million to support peace building. Meanwhile, in the camps in Thailand, up to 25 per cent of funding for essential services may be cut, according to Burma Campaign UK (BCUK), a London-based advocacy and research organization.
The refugee community fears that it may lead to higher student dropout rates, premature return and less preparation for a durable solution. JRS partners with the Karenni Education Department (KnED) to implement education programs in two Mae Hong Son camps where the majority of the refugee population hails from eastern Burma's Kayah state. But JRS has been unable to attain the full amount —roughly $800,000 — needed to maintain the programs in 2012.
JRS will struggle to stretch resources to cover the program until the end of the year. Reviewing the secondary curriculum and hiring new staff have been suspended.
"We feel sad because of budget cuts," said Khu Oo Reh, a refugee education official. Other sectors impacted by lack of resources include basic humanitarian needs, such as food provision. The ration has been cut down to only 1,640 kcal per day per person — 22 per cent less than the recommended 2,100 kcal required to meet international standards, according to the World Food Program.
The risks of return
An estimated 160,000 refugees remain in the camps, fearful that the decline in assistance will inevitably force them to return before the country is safe.
"The government is trying to show the world the image that the country is changing into a democracy. It is not true. There are still murders and tortures as well as violence, rape cases and uncleared landmines," Sha Reh, another student, told JRS.
While a number of ceasefire agreements have been signed in the past year, based on past experiences, it is no guarantee of peace. In January 2012 the Karen National Union (KNU) signed an agreement with the Burma government but renewed fighting broke out in the east only a few days later.
Similarly, in Northern Shan State, the Shan State Army was fired upon little over one week after signing a peace agreement at the end of January. The Burma military also refused to withdraw troops from agreed upon areas, according to local news sources. In addition, eastern and western areas are rife with landmines. Roughly five million people in ten out of Burma's 14 states and divisions are exposed to mine contaminated land, according to Geneva Call, an international mine ban advocacy organization. This poses serious challenges for repatriation.
"If repatriation does happen, the government will have to be ready to provide for people’s welfare such as housing, security, education, food, health care and safety assurance," Sha Reh said.
Education as preparation
JRS' education programs in Mae Hong Son and Khun Yuam districts, ongoing since 1997, aim to prepare refugees for durable solutions. JRS provides basic education, teacher training, special education, school materials, vocational training and non-formal education to 5,200 students in Ban Mai Nai Soi and Ban Mae Surin from primary to high school.
"Education is very important for our people. We need many skills because we are poor. Many people are illiterate," said Than Maung, a refugee teacher. JRS education and vocational trainings teach refugees skills that will enable them to find good jobs later on, according to Than Maung.
Similarly, in May, Aung San Suu Kyi spoke at the World Economic Forum in Bangkok and emphasised the importance of education that would allow young people to reach their potential.
"What I am afraid of is not so much joblessness as hopelessness," she said.
In the camps, where people are trapped without freedom of movement, education provides hope for the future. Cutting back on assistance may push refugees back to Burma despite ongoing fighting and the risk of landmine contamination.
"Education is really important for the students," said Khu Oo Reh.
Without the legal ability to leave the camps to find other schools or jobs, the funding shortages leave the refugees to face a difficult path ahead.
"If there is no support to education, where will the students go to school," asked Naw Kreh, a refugee education official. Refugees cannot adequately prepare for return if funding for education dries up, according to the Karenni refugee students.
"Only education can provide for a nation. Darkness cannot drive out darkness," Naw Kreh said.
To donate to JRS' Thailand programs, please click here and use the text box to indicate "Thailand programs."
by Sermsiri Ingavanija and Dana MacLean
Jesuit Refugee Service Thailand
Jesuit Refugee Service Asia Pacific
202-462-0400 ext. 5946