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Myanmar: Is it safe for refugees to return after elections
January 28, 2016

Myanmar: Is it safe for refugees to return after elections
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.

Security. 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.

Dignity. 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.

Voluntary return. 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

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