Burmese refugees in Thailand & Malaysia

Source: ICMC Europe, Welcome to Europe! A comprehensive guide to resettlement, 2013

Prolonged conflict in Burma (Myanmar) has led to one of the most protracted refugee situations in Asia. For over 50 years, the Burmese military regime has persecuted many of the country’s numerous ethnic and minority groups, many of whom have sought greater autonomy from the Burmese state. Burma’s human rights situation remains poor, despite some actions by the government toward reform.

Burmese refugees in Malaysia

As of January 2014, 92,263 Burmese refugees were registered in Malaysia. The Burmese refugee population in Malaysia is entirely urban, with most living in or around major cities. This population is made up of ethnic Burmese minorities who fled persecution by the former military regime, mainly the Chin, Karen and Mon groups. The Burmese refugee population in Malaysia also includes a large group of Rohingya, a Muslim minority from Burma’s northern Rakhine State that suffers routine discrimination and abuse by the Burmese government. Peace negotiations with armed ethnic groups are ongoing, and prospects for voluntary return are therefore expected to improve in 2013-14. However, continuous persecution and instability in some parts of Burma mean voluntary repatriation is still not a realistic prospect for the majority of Burmese refugees in Malaysia.

Prospects for local integration are also extremely limited. Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention or its 1967 Protocol, and has no national asylum legal framework or system (RSD is instead conducted by UNHCR). Urban environments can in some cases offer more opportunities for self reliance and better prospects for integration. However, the 1963 Malaysian Immigration Act does not distinguish between refugees and undocumented migrants, and without a protected legal status refugees are at constant risk of arrest, detention and deportation. Refugees are unable to work legally, send their children to school, or access healthcare or social services.

For 2014, UNHCR plans to submit 14,150 Burmese refugees for resettlement from Malaysia, contributing to making it the country with the highest number of resettlement submissions worldwide planned for 2014. Total resettlement needs are 123,760 Burmese refugees. In addition to annual intakes by Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the US have multi-year resettlement commitments with regard to this population.

European countries including Czech Republic, Denmark, Norway and Sweden have resettled Burmese refugees. Identification of resettlement needs is challenging due to the urban context, although UNHCR accepts referrals for resettlement assessment from refugee communities and NGOs, particularly those involved in health and community services in urban settings.

Certain NGOs have pointed out that resettlement from Malaysia should be used more strategically and be used to promote an adequate protection system in Malaysia, where most refugees have remained in this protracted situation for decades without a durable solution in sight.

Burmese refugees in Thailand

Since their arrival in Thailand in the 1980s, Burmese refugees have been confined to nine closed camps – known as ‘temporary shelters’ - along the Thai-Burma border. Access to these camps is regulated by the Thai government. As of January 2014, 77,913 Burmese refugees were registered as having been admitted to the nine camps. Since 2006, the registration and admission system in the camps has not been fully functional, and approximately 46,000 camp residents are estimated to be unregistered. Unregistered camp residents are ineligible for resettlement. UNHCR conducts RSD for asylum seekers living in Bangkok except for Burmese refugees who are required by the government to report to the camps on the border.

Most camp residents are ethnic Karen who fled conflict with the military regime in Burma. Following national elections in Burma in November 2010, new clashes between armed ethnically affiliated groups and the Burmese army erupted along the Thai-Burma border, leading to the rapid arrival of a further 16,000-18,000 refugees from Burma. While recent ceasefire agreements between ethnic armed groups and the Burmese government have presented some limited possibilities for a resolution to these conflicts, it is not clear when - or even if - the situation will improve. Many Karen refugees are subsequently reluctant to take up voluntary repatriation at the current time, and it therefore remains limited as a durable solution in this context.

Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention and has no national legislation governing the treatment of refugees. Burmese nationals, found living outside of the camps, are subject to arrest, detention and deportation. The basic rights of refugees in Thailand are severely limited - they have no access to medical services and they do not have the right to work – meaning local integration is impossible. To date, resettlement has been the only durable solution that offers adequate protection for Burmese refugees in Thailand.

Resettlement began in 2005 and has since provided a durable solution for more than 80,000 Burmese refugees in Thailand. UNHCR has projected a total resettlement need for Burmese refugees in Thailand of 4,000 persons, and plans to submit 3,500 refugees for resettlement in 2014. Although resettlement from Thailand has been conducted for over seven years, it has not led to an improvement in the protection climate in Thailand. UNHCR is in the process of phasing out resettlement and no longer lists it as a priority for 2014.

Photo: Nam DarBu, Burmese (Karen) refugee living in Kuala Lumpar. ©Andrew McConnel/Panos Pictures/The IRC