Refugee Camps Left out of Democratic Reform in Burma

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Obama’s visit to Burma has sparked hopes of further democratic reform, but there is a long way to go before 150,000 Burmese refugees in camps across the border will be able to return, says a Linfield College professor.

The international community needs to help facilitate a comprehensive peace-building process, says a Linfield College political scientist.

The refugee camps, based in Thailand and almost three decades old, have been around so long that half the residents are under age 19 and have never even seen Burma, said Patrick Cottrell, professor of political science at Linfield College in Oregon.

The refugees are not wanted in Thailand, and Burma won’t take them back. And so they are confined to camps, with limited work opportunities, few resources and no legal rights.

The Linfield professor took his students from Oregon to Thailand last summer, where they talked to officials who govern refugees and documented the effects of political oppression, violence and lack of economic opportunity.

“Refugees are not the only ones caught in a state of limbo,” Cottrell said. “Humanitarian assistance organizations are beginning to feel trapped in the middle, too.”

After 28 years, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and their donors are more concerned about accountability than ever, particularly in light of the protracted nature of the refugee crisis in Thailand. “Donor fatigue” is growing and as food prices go up, humanitarian organizations are struggling to provide basic human needs for refugees and displaced peoples.

Cottrell says the United Nations is also in limbo. U.N. officials have the ability to register displaced persons as refugees, but they are caught between helping vulnerable populations and acting with political impartiality.

“A refugee is a social category constructed by the international humanitarian community,” said Cottrell, who formerly served with the U.S. Department of State. “The legal definition of a refugee states that they are a person with a ‘well-founded fear of persecution,’ which can be subjective at times.”

Half of the camp residents lack refugee status, which further limits their rights.

Rather than waiting for change in Burma, many NGOs are adopting a more proactive approach. They are teaching residents of refugee camps to grow food and gain self-sufficiency so they can provide for themselves both now and in the future if repatriation becomes a viable option.

In the past, many refugees turned to resettlement in third countries such as the U.S., but resettlement is not a panacea. Those with marketable skills are most likely to be accepted for resettlement, leaving the old, the young and the poorly skilled behind. Moreover, displaced peoples need refugee status to be eligible for resettlement and Thailand no longer is authorizing the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to register new refugees.

Thailand has resisted local integration for decades, fearing that a welcome mat would increase the number of refugees coming into the country and increase the strain on government resources.

Consequently, said the Linfield College political science professor, “Everyone’s banking on the repatriation idea, which would allow refugees to return to their place of origin. But there is a long, long way to go before conditions in Burma would be safe for them to return.

“The international community needs to help facilitate a comprehensive peace-building process,” Cottrell said. “Hopefully, Obama’s visit will be met with observable steps on the part of Burma, and particularly its military, to improve human rights practices and take larger steps toward lasting reconciliation. If there’s one thing that almost everyone agrees on, it is that the only durable solution in this context is a politically stable Burma where minority populations can thrive.”

Professor Patrick Cottrell has published and taught in the areas of U.S. foreign policy, international law and global governance. He is currently writing a book about crisis and change in global security institutions.

Linfield College is one of the few schools in the Pacific Northwest dedicated exclusively to undergraduate education, offering degrees in arts, sciences and professional programs. The small college was named one of the nation’s top picks for high school counselors across the U.S. and has been nationally praised for combining affordability and excellence. Linfield’s park-like residential campus is located an hour from Portland and an hour from Pacific Ocean beaches.

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Linfield College, Oregon