Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Communication of Information on the Thai-Burma Border

Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Communication of Information on the Thai-Burma Border

Article excerpt

Roughly 110,000 camp residents - mostly ethnic Karen - live in nine camps on the Thai-Burma border, where humanitarian programmes now focus on preparedness for return. The general consensus among the humanitarian community is that conditions in Burma are not yet conducive to promote repatriation.1 However, the lack of official information and the uncertainty caused by cuts to funding and consequent service reductions in the camps have made refugees anxious to obtain reliable information about their options for the future.

The Karen Refugee Committee formally highlighted the need for improved information sharing with refugees as a priority concern at the first workshop on repatriation in June 2012. UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) and the Committee for the Coordination of Services to Displaced Persons in Thailand (CCSDPT) - which coordinates the involvement of 19 NGOs providing services in the camps - have acknowledged that refugees lack access to formal channels through which relevant and credible information can be requested and accessed.2

In 2013 I conducted an ethnographic study that sought to understand how camp residents perceived the role and importance of communication in camp settings, particularly in light of the prospect of repatriation. Many camp residents I spoke to explained that a lack of access to trusted information about the situation in Burma and plans for repatriation heightened their concern and uncertainty. For instance, a woman with two children said, "I don't know anything, any information, about where they will send us and what they will do."

Camp residents also wanted to know about alternative options for those who did not wish to return to Burma. Would they be permitted to stay in the camps or move to a third country? Or would the camps be forcibly closed and repatriation forced on those who are ineligible for resettlement because they arrived after the Thai government's November 2005 moratorium on screening new arrivals? Moreover, camp residents wanted not simply to be the recipients of information but to give voice to their concerns and questions about the negotiation of conditions for return.

"We stay here for so long, but no one gives us a chance. We can't meet with the UN or NGOs. We can't say anything; we just close our mouths and stay quiet. ...No one comes down to speak with us, to give us a chance or to give us a human right to say what we need to say." (elderly male resident in Mae La camp)

Dialogue about these and other matters is necessary if camp residents are to make informed decisions about whether, when and how they feel safe to return, which is surely a prerequisite for 'voluntary' repatriation. As preparations for repatriation progress, camp residents will need to know about matters such as relocation areas, livelihood opportunities, safeguards for human rights, clearance of land mines, location of troops, and whether education and training received in camp will be recognised in Burma.

"If you decide your fate on rumours, it is all wrong; that is the point I want you to understand," a man in Nu Po told me. Likewise, a young man in Mae La explained: "The refugees need to know the right information. ... If they don't, they will do the wrong thing for their future, so their life will never improve."

Main sources of information

Information flows in the camps follow a hierarchical structure of authority in a manner that simultaneously facilitates and restricts camp residents' access to information. 'Section' meetings (for different geographic sections of each camp), loudspeakers and noticeboards - all managed by the camp committees - are the primary conduits used by humanitarian organisations to disseminate information to the camp populations. In practice these mechanisms do not function consistently nor are they accessible to all sections of all camps. Camp residents felt the information-sharing mechanisms provided information predominantly relating to rules and procedures to be followed in camp but failed to address in detail the matters they deemed most important. …

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