Myanmar, also known as Burma, is located between Bangladesh and Thailand in Southeast Asia. Myanmar has a great ethnic diversity with almost 135 different ethnic groups. Some of these ethnic groups are called Bamar(68%), Shan (10%) and Karen (7%).
Figure 1: Major ethnic groups in Burma (Aljazeera / 2017)
Myanmar has no official state religion, but 88% of population believe in Theravada Buddhism which is the highest rated religious group in the country. Also, Bamars (Bhurman) and Shans practice Budhism and Karens, Kachins and Chins practice Protestant Christianity. Most of other groups believe in local religions. Muslims and Hindus are considered minorities in Myanmar, Muslims consist of only 4,3% of population.
Figure 2 : Religions in Myanmar (design by CartoMission)
Majority of Muslims live in Rakhine (Arakanese) district. The Rohingian Muslims were considered stateless because of their restrictive provisions and practices on the basis of their race, which was reorganized by the Myanmar government. After 1982 Citizenship Law declared, Rohingians are excluded from the list of officially recognized minority ethnic groups. Their civil rights, freedom of movement, access to health and education services, voting rights were denied. The Army of Myanmar, also called Tatmadaw, had launched “field clearance operations”. More than 700,000 refugees have migrated to neighboring countries such as Pakistan, Malaysia, India and Indonesia. However, majority of them migrated to Thailand and Bangladesh.
The first migrations from Myanmar to Thailand occurred in 1984. The majority of the refugees were Karens and Karennis, who escaped from armed conflicts and atrocities by the Burma Army. The Burma government’s policy of genocide of ethnic groups has resulted in widespread destruction of communities and the decline of traditional cultures. Thousands of houses, temples, mosques, schools especially in the states that host the people of Karen and Karenni were damaged and many villages were destroyed. In many places, villagers were not allowed to come to their village, their foods were stolen, and people were tortured. Many villagers abandoned their villages because their homes were burned downed and some had to flee to the forest repeatedly to protect themselves.
Photograph 1: The burning houses of the Karen people in Myanmar.
The refugees, who were settled on the Thai-Myanmar border by the Royal Thai Government. They were allowed to live in village-type settlements and provided with food, clothing etc. until 1995. After that, camp life changed significantly; village-type settlements and some new restrictions caused refugees to become increasingly dependent on foreign aid in the area. Although many refugees around the world have the freedom to travel and work, the situation was different for Burmanese refugees in Thailand. They were prevented from working and providing for themselves and this started causing big issues for the refugees.
Photograph 2: The houses made of bamboo cane in Mae Sot refugee camps. (27/04/2015 by Derek Gee)
Refugees in Thailand built houses for themselves, consisting of bamboos and roofs made of thatched leaves. Restrictions of land and housing forced more than one family living in one house, and it caused privacy and personal space issues. Some of the camps are located in mountains at the end of the dirt roads, most of them are located 2 hours away from outside the nearest hospital where it was out of the GPS coverage area. In addition, these regions are also affected by floods during the rainy season and shelters made of bamboo with overcrowded families lead to fires and loss of lives. Refugees were also struggled with infectious disease such as malaria, diphtheria and HIV. Unfortunately, NGOs were the only organizations tried to prevent these diseases happening in the area, but the efforts were not enough.
Thailand is one of the limited countries who did not sign the 1951 Refugee Convention (Geneva). Neighboring countries also didn’t sign. They don’t have any law or committee on refugees, it does not grant them refugee status and does not recognize UNHCR status. Refugees from Myanmar have been allowed to stay in 9 urban camps on the Thai-Myanmar border, and housing needs of refugees have been met. However, the Thai government did not provide them education, healthcare, nutritious food and clothing, this was undertaken by some of the international organizations such as UNHCR, IOM, CDC; as well as CCSDPT which includes 13 of the local NGOs, also carries out aid activities in refugee camps along the border. Refugees who wanted to work had to leave the camps illegally. This situation has brought risks such as returning to Myanmar or detention to jail.
Figure 3: The refugee camps in Thailand and number of refugees living in camps (by The Asean Post)
As it was mentioned before there are 9 urban camps on the Thai-Myanmar border for refugees which are shelters for 30 years. These are Mae La, Umpiem, Mae Ra Ma, Nu Po, Mae La Oon, Ban Mai Nai Soi, Tham Hin, Ban Don Yang, Ban Mae Surin camps. In 2011, 169,047 people lived in camps according to UNHCR Report. This number decreased to 97,439 in 2018 November and on the last report it decreased to 95,593 people. Almost half of the population living in camps are children. Also, any babies born in camp, have no birth certificates which means there are more and more stateless people are born every year.
Figure 4 : Resettlement of Myanmar Refugees form Temporary Shelters in Thailand. (2019 by UNHCR)
As a result of increasing international pressures, the Thai Royal Government promised to end statelessness until 2024. A step forward to this goal is the 2010 Civil Registration Act, which allows babies who born from refugee parents to obtain birth certificate. However, this is not considered a citizenship certificate, this only prevents babies from being stateless. In 2017, UNHCR estimated 4,300 newborns registered and obtained their birth certificates. This will primarily help to facilitate vaccination control, as well as disease monitoring and any other health issues arises from not having a proper preventive healthcare.
Photograph 3: Myanmar refugee babies wait for birth registration in Thailand’s Mae La camp. (by UNHCR)
On January 10, 2017, a draft law was created by the Thai government to develop screening policies and to establish a “Unregistered Migrant and Refugee Management Committee” for the health management of illegal immigrants and refugees. On June 18, 2018, a positive step was taken towards migrants by the joint statement issued by FR (Fortify Rights), APRRN (Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network) and CRSP (The Coalition for the Rights of Refugees and Stateless Person). However, it was noted that no steps have been taken by the Thai government to implement the draft law. The draft law adopted with the support of 13 organizations, is important for Thailand to provide legal basis for immigrants.
Photograph 4: The Mae La Refugee Camp. (by TCIJ)
The number of people in all camps except Tham Hin has decreased significantly over the last 7 years. The number of refugees living in camps continues to decline thanks to the return studies supported by UNHCR.
In this article, persecution in Myanmar and the migration of its people to the neighboring countries was discussed. Also, the migration policies implemented by the Thai government were mentioned.
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- UNHCR; Reports of Thailand Refugee Camps; October 2011 and 2018
- TDV; ‘‘Arakan Raporu’’; Aralık 2017.
- UNHCR; ‘‘States Parties to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol’’; 2015.
- National Statistical Office Thailand; ‘‘Expectation Of Life At Birth From The Survey Of Population Change’’; 2018.
- Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APPRN); ‘‘Thaıland: Ensure Refugee Rights And Protections Through Refugee Regulation’’; 2018.
- Hill K, Vapattanawong P, Prasartkul P, Porapakkham Y, Lim SS, Lopez AD; ‘‘Epidemiologic Transition Interrupted: A Reassessment Of Mortality Trends In Thailand 1980–2000’’; International Journal of Epidemiology, Volume 36, Issue 2, Pages 374–384; 2007.
- Tzu Chi Foundation; ‘‘Monthly Free Medical Care for Refugees in Bangkok, Thailand’’; 2015.
- The Stateless Rohingya: Victims of Burma’s Identity Politics and Priority for R2P – Scientific Figure on ResearchGate. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Major-ethnic-groups-in-Burma-Aljazeera-2017_fig1_330502290 [accessed 26 May, 2019]