Myanmar: Is it safe for refugees to return after elections
January 28, 2016
|A young female student listens for instructions from her alongside her peers with her younger sibling wrapped around her back teacher at a JRS project in Loikaw, Myanmar. (Irene Ho / Jesuit Refugee Service)
|Many refugees feel that to return right now to Myanmar would be premature.
(Mae Hong Son, Thailand) January 28, 2016 – In November
2015, Myanmar held its first national vote since a nominally civilian government was established in 2011, ending almost 50 years of military rule.
Since the elections, there have been much optimism for national
reconciliation, which may allow for repatriation of Burmese refugees who fled
to camps on the Thailand-Myanmar border decades ago.
After over four years of negotiations, only eight of 16
ethnic armed groups have signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, and there
are still security concerns in many parts of Myanmar. Furthermore, addressing
displacement has not yet been prioritized in the peace process. For example,
decisions regarding restoration of citizenship status and providing
identification documents have not yet been clarified. Many refugees feel that
to return right now to Myanmar would be premature.
Although life in the camps is not a durable
solution, the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) believes repatriation should be
considered on a case to case basis, with the safety of the refugees taking
priority. Paths back to Myanmar should not only be demilitarized and
undisputed, but clear from landmines as well.
"In the future, I would like to be a teacher and
improve the education of our Karenni children, but only if the situation back
home is safe," said Maung Saw Tin*, a refugee student.
JRS works under the principles of
non-discrimination and works on both sides of the Thailand-Myanmar border
providing education – particularly for youth – and offering trust-building
programs for refugees and returnees.
However, many refugees fear the lack of services in the
communities to which they are returning. Many of the communities in Myanmar to
which refugees are returning do not provide the practical support, such as
food, shelter, heath care and education as is provided in the camps, as
humanitarian agencies are not yet present there.
"Most camp refugees came from remote areas in Myanmar
where there's no access to social services. There are schools but no teachers,
clinics but no medicine," said U Aye Ko*, a refugee leader.
Thus, JRS believes repatriation must be a
voluntary decision, with refugees involved and consulted throughout the entire
process. Returnees have the right to be well-informed and made aware of the
current situation in their specific location of return, before making any
decisions. JRS is working to improve communication to give refugees the
information they need to help them make an informed decision regarding their
decision to return to Myanmar.
"We love our country but our villages were burnt. We do
not want to go back to that situation," said Mee Meh*, a refugee in Mae
Hong Son camp.
Last month, the Karenni Refugee Committee, the UN refugee
agency, Thailand's Ministry of Interior and World Education attended a four-day
workshop on voluntary repatriation hosted by JRS in Mae Hong Son, Thailand. The
framework of the workshop took into consideration the hopes as well as the
fears of refugees around repatriation.
*Names have been changed
Adapted from an
article written by Jesuit Refugee Service Asia Pacific
Mr Christian Fuchs