International Affairs Review

Spring 2016 Article

A Place to Call Home: The Acceptance and Denial of Burmese Refugees

By Alexandra Craig
A Rohingya Muslim man who fled from Burma to Bangladesh to escape religious violence, cries as he pleads after being intercepted by Bangladeshi border authorities in June 2012. (Photograph: Anurup Titu/AP)

In 2013 I went to Thailand to visit Mae Rae Moo, a Burmese refugee camp located on the border between Burma and Thailand. While at the camp, I met Shwe Kyaw, a student at a junior college who had left his home in Karen State, Burma at the age of seventeen. Through talking with Shwe Kyaw I learned about the various human rights abuses that the Burmese military has carried out against the ethnic people. Shwe Kyaw told me that he became a refugee because the military government shut down the schools near his village and planted land mines to prevent ethnic minorities from escaping. He talked about how he had to travel alone because it would not be safe for his family to attempt to leave, but that he wants to go back to his village to become a teacher. Shwe Kyaw helped me realize how great the Burmese refugee issue truly is (Shwe Kyaw, Interview).

For more than twenty-five years Burma has experienced a refugee crisis due to the military government’s record of continuous human rights violations. Members of various ethnic groups have been forced to flee the country, often finding residence in Thailand. In all refugee instances there exists a tension between the rejection and acceptance of the refugee populations in their home country and their country of refuge. The former argument often prioritizes the economic troubles that a country could potentially face when it takes care of people that are not its citizens. Meanwhile, those who prioritize humanitarianism often appeal to morality and the safety of the human population; they argue that refugees should be accepted wherever they go to ensure their safety. This essay ultimately focuses on whether Burmese refugees should be accepted into their countries of refuge, or if countries should be able to deny refuge within their borders. Seeking refuge from persecution is an act that has existed for as long as civilization itself (“Refugees” par. 1). Refugees are defined by the United Nations as a person who has a “fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country" (“Refugees” par. 3).

Dr. Susan Banki, a professor at the University of Sydney, wrote that in 2009 there were roughly 150,000 Burmese refugees living in camps like Mae Rae Moo and over 250,000 Burmese refugees living outside of the camps in Thailand (Banki 50). In 2008 there were over 2 million Burmese migrants residing in Thailand who were not considered refugees. Of these migrants, many were likely fleeing the same government that caused others to become refugees (Banki 50-51). Burma has been facing a refugee crisis due to human rights violations performed by the government, which held power under a military regime from 1962 to 2011 (Banki 51; Barany 86; “Burmese Refugees in Thailand” par. 1).

Over two million members of ethnic minorities have migrated to Thailand after suffering violence from the Burmese military (Banki 50; Palatino par. 2). Even after the military released its power over the government in 2011 it maintained a presence in the country’s politics as President Thein Sein was installed as the country’s leader (Barany 98). Countless ethnic groups have been forced to move from their homes as the Burmese government practices forced relocation (Newland et al 4-6). As groups are forced to relocate, many choose to do so in other countries. The highest represented ethnic groups in Burmese refugee camps along the Burma-Thailand border are the Karen, Karenni and Shan, whose ethnic homelands lie in close proximity to the border (Appendix A).   

In recent years one of the more prominent groups of Burmese refugees are the Rohingya Muslims who flee after being horrendously mistreated. This is partially due to the majority of the Burmese population not recognizing them as Burmese but rather as Bengali (Palatino par. 1; Tennery par. 3). The government went to the extent of legally stripping the Rohingya of their Burmese citizenship with the implementation of the 1982 Citizenship Act. If one is able to prove their residence in the country since 1923 or belongs to one of the national ethnic groups the Act grants indigenous status, and therefore citizenship (“Discrimination in Arakan” par. 3). However, this is not the case for the Rohingya, who have been left stateless as they are denied a place to call home (Hamling par. 4). President Thein Sein revoked the Temporary Registration Cards that were used as the legal identification of the Rohingya population in February of 2015, taking away their right to vote (“Myanmar 2015/2016” par. 9). Under the 1982 Citizenship Act, Rohingya are not able to move freely within the country or allowed transit abroad without permission from a Burmese official. When they choose to travel the prices they pay are significantly higher than the prices that those who are recognized as Burmese citizens would have to pay. They are also denied the right to higher education and the ability to hold government office positions. Many Rohingya have been subjected to forced labor in their villages where the local government orders the Rohingya to give their crops to the military or to perform state-run labor-intensive tasks. Even Rohingya children are forced to work, running afoul of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. If a resident of a particular village does not perform the task she is assigned, the government fines the entire village (“Discrimination in Arakan” par. 9-22). After an extensive list of abuses that have been performed by the government since 1982, Rohingya now flee the country in increasing numbers, becoming refugees. Their flight from Burma is echoed in many different locations around the world by varying groups of people. As refugees become a more prominent global issue, attention is drawn to the arguments surrounding whether or not countries should be required to furnish refuge within their borders.

The Case Against Accepting Burmese Refugees

A number of countries under pressured to accept refugees are not able to for economic reasons. Due to these financial constraints, Malaysia and Indonesia have declared that they cannot accept Rohingya refugees (Tennery par. 12). Even for relatively wealthier countries offering support is a struggle because refugees often settle in less accessible areas near borders, hoping someday to return to their home countries (Fiddian-Qasmiyeh et al 128). In Thailand, camps for Burmese refugees are located along the 1,401 kilometer border between the two countries (Lang 7). The roads, specifically the one going to and from Mae Rae Moo refugee camp, are poorly developed, making it hard to get supplies and other forms of aid to the refugee camp. It becomes costly to help these refugees, which is not a penalty that the host country must bear, whether it wants to or not.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures the United States has a budget for refugee issues that is set at $582 million (Phillips par. 9). The Center for Immigration Studies found that American taxpayers spend $64,370 per Syrian refugee permitted refuge in the country (Meyer par. 1). In comparison to other nations, settling refugees in the United States is far more expensive because extra steps are taken, such as English language classes and an allowance of $1000 per refugee (Phillips par. 2). In other countries it would cost approximately $5,364 to support a refugee in a neighboring country (Meyer par. 3). For countries that do not have the financial resources of a superpower like the United States, it is nearly impossible to spend anywhere near this amount of money on refugees. Unfortunately most refugees are concentrated in the poorer countries of the world, such as Thailand and Bangladesh in the case of the Rohingya (“Social and Economic Impact” par. 2). To put this in perspective, the United States has a 2016 budget of some $4 trillion, while Thailand has a budget roughly equivalent to $76 billion for the same fiscal year (Parpart par. 2; Soergel par. 1). With such limited resources overall, it is not economically feasible for Thailand to support all of the Burmese refugees within the country without changing the distribution of the budget.  

The violence that stems from the acceptance of the Rohingya shows the social dangers of accepting refugees. There are heightened concerns about security when it comes to refugees since the Paris terrorist attacks in the summer of 2015 because one of the men responsible for the attacks pretended to be a Syrian refugee to enter France. It can be hard to tell a refugee from someone pretending to be a refugee due to an increase in fake passports around the world, which is a rising concern to a vast majority of the countries taking in refugees (Fisher par. 8). Although these events took place in Europe, there is a global fear of the dangers large numbers of refugees might pose. There is also no definitive way of knowing whether or not a refugee entering a new country will be violent or will become a productive member of his new country. (Fisher par. 12). In Burma there were riots in Rakhine state after three Rohingya men were sentenced to death for raping and killing a Rakhine woman (Haddadi par. 1). The event added to the preexisting tensions between the Buddhist Rakhine and the Muslim Rohingya, which make the Rakhine feel unsafe within the borders of their own ethnic state (Haddadi par. 4). These tensions have existed since the British colonization of Burma (Gill 16). There has also been an increase in violence within Rakhine state as a whole due to the presence of the Rohingya refugees. Shortly after the trial for the murder of the Rakhine woman, a mob of 300 Rakhine swarmed a bus, killing ten Rohingya (Haddadi par. 5).

The Case for Accepting Burmese Refugees

People do not seek refuge unless they have a reason to leave their home country, however at times this fact seems to be forgotten by the general public when speaking of refugees. Burma’s government has performed countless human rights violations over the past 50 years: “arbitrary arrest, unlawful killings, sexual violence, torture, enforced disappearances and destruction of livelihood” (Gill 11). For instance, there is currently a Buddhist Abbot that runs an orphanage in Burma. The children that reside in the orphanage are all training to be monks, even if they are Christian, because it allows them to stay safe from the Burmese military. The Abbot stated that he wants the children to become educated and to be free from the military because if they are not protected, the Burmese military will take them in and train them to fight once they are old enough to use a gun. Amongst the wrongdoings directly implemented by the military, there has recently been a sharp increase in religious intolerance within Burma. The intolerance has created violence particularly between the Buddhist and the Muslim populations. Laws that were passed in 2015 contained human rights violations such as discrimination based on gender and religion. The government has continued its arrests of people who are peacefully practicing their rights, such as student protestors and those who work in the media. There is also continued violence within the state even though the government and the ethnic groups came to a ceasefire agreement in 2012 (“Myanmar 2015/2016” par. 5-22). Shawn Cohen, a medical doctor, and Ramin Asgary, a medical doctor and professor at the NYU School of Medicine, wrote that “nearly 90% of the refugees suffered forced labor, forced relocation, or looting and close to 50% suffered the loss of a loved one through killing, accidents or disappearance” (Cohen and Asgary 75). Due to living in such conditions, Karenni refugees have shown significant levels of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (Bartholomew et al 1116). Karen refugees have also said they felt as if they were treated more like animals than like humans by the Burmese army (Bartholomew et al 1127). Being subjected to horrible conditions has a lasting effect on the refugee populations. It is obviously important for refugees to be accepted ensure their safety and security.

Women are often mistreated both inside Burma’s borders and as they become refugees. Due to the desperate feelings and hopeless situations that accompany refugee status, women are some of the easiest targets for human traffickers (Seltzer 280). This is due to the fact that “women and girls who do not have access to education, economic and property rights, or political processes are more likely to fall victim to traffickers” (Seltzer 282). As of 2002, 20,000 Burmese women were refugees living illegally within Thailand as workers in the sex industry (Lang 12). Many Burmese women move to places where they can get jobs and most of the jobs available to them are in domestic service and prostitution (Newland et al 6). There have also been cases where parents have sold their daughters—believing that their daughters would be doing domestic service—in order to make money because the wages they earn after entering Thailand are so low they cannot survive without the extra income. Unfortunately many of the daughters that are sold are brought into the sex industry (Perrin par. 1-4). Other women, often Rohingya, are sold into marriage in order to pay for their trip across the border. Some women that marry the men that help them escape Burma agree to do so but others are forced into marriage at ages as young as the early teen years (Buckley par. 1-6). This situation is becoming increasingly common as Rohingya are floating in the waters surrounding Burma, since they are not welcome within any country (McKurdy and Mohsin par. 1). Rohingya women are doing whatever they can to escape their current living situations, which include marrying complete strangers. Instances such as these will continue until there is proper acceptance and treatment of migrants and refugees within their new country of residence.  

Refugees often get a reputation for criminal behavior, but in reality many of their crimes are ones of desperation in otherwise hopeless situations. They are, after all, simply humans trying to survive. They can be doctors; they can be entrepreneurs; they can be inventors; they have potential to benefit a country should they be allowed to settle. Mae Rae Moo refugee camp has both a primary school, staffed by members of the community, and the Mae Rae Moo Junior College. The primary school was established under the junior college in order to teach those who came to the camp at a young age or those who were born inside the camp. After finishing the primary school program (or by coming to the camp at college age) students move to the junior college which is run by one of the refugees who worked at a school in Burma until he was forced to flee the country. Refugees maintain the same desire for education as people everywhere, and obtaining an education reaffirms their humanity amidst a world that tries to sheer them of it. Refugees also work hard to get what they need to survive. They are not a group of freeloaders. In Mae Rae Moo the refugees plant their own coffee in order to make a bit of money. There is not much land in the camp so the coffee is planted along the side of a mountain. It takes hard work and dedication to be able to perform the work that refugees do in their daily lives. According to Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund, accepting Syrian refugees into European countries can benefit their economies by bringing in more workers, especially in the case of Germany (Ferro par. 11). While Lagarde spoke of Syrian refugees specifically, the same is true for Thailand and other countries near Burma. Although presently Burmese refugees do not have the right to work in Thailand, they have the potential to create a stronger work force within the country (“Burmese Refugees in Thailand” par. 1).


In November 2015 the National League for Democracy (NLD) party won a majority of the seats in the Burmese parliament. Unfortunately for the Rohingya refugees, the change in Burma’s government to the NLD party has not brought any promise of significant change. Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Burma (she is barred from holding office, but wields great power within the NLD), has said nothing to confront the issues facing the Rohingya (Blanchfield par. 1; Rigby par. 1). In fact, according to U Win Htein, a spokesperson of the NLD party, the Rohingya are not their highest priority. Instead, they plan to focus on “Peace, the peaceful transition of power, economic development and constitutional reform” (Rigby par. 3). By not prioritizing the Rohingya and ending their persecution, Aung San Suu Kyi is aiding the Islamophobia that caused them to become refugees in the first place. In an interview Aung San Suu Kyi refused to condemn the treatment of the Muslim Rohingya even after being asked by the interviewer to do so (Harley par. 5). NLD also stands behind the idea that the Rohingya are Bengali, a theory that is perpetuated by those who do not wish for them to be considered Burmese citizens (Rigby par. 5). If there is to be any change in the way that Burmese refugees are treated the NLD needs to take action. Rohingya Muslims are treated as if they are illegal within the Burmese borders and are not allowed to settle anywhere else. Aung San Suu Kyi needs to condemn violence towards the Rohingya if she wants to fully transform Burma.

As the refugee crisis in Burma continues, it is important that a safe place is found for those who seek refuge from the Burmese military. There have been countless human rights violations that make it unsafe for ethnic peoples to remain within the country. Although the safety of the refugees is important, it may not be correct to simply require nations such as Thailand or Bangladesh to accept all of the refugees that are fleeing Burma. It is too expensive for countries to support refugees without help from the outside world. In order to solve this issue it would be ideal to get funding from non-governmental or inter-governmental sources, such as the International Monetary Fund. The UNHCR currently allocates money to refugees living within Thailand, but because there are so many refugee issues in the world, these funds are stretched thin and need to be augmented.

Refugee issues are becoming a common point of discussion in the media, but talking about the issue is not enough to fix the problem.  Thai media reports calls for the support of refugees, but the government has done nothing to increase aid. In American media the Burmese refugees are often not a high priority in a world filled with refugee crises, so many citizens do not know the struggles that they are facing. In order for change to take place, there needs to be action; in order to spark action the global media needs to put more emphasis on the Burmese refugees.

Although the other countries surrounding Burma are no longer able to, Thailand currently supports refugees within its borders; unfortunately the way that Thailand currently supports the refugees that are already in the country needs to be amended. Thailand has not signed or ratified the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention and therefore does not have effective refugee laws. If a refugee lives outside of the camps they are immediately labeled as illegal and can be arrested or immediately deported. Refugees are willing to take this risk in order to keep self-autonomy, since Thailand also lacks a functioning refugee camp system (Banki 50; “Thailand: Refugee Policies” par. 4). It would be ideal for the Thai government to ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention in order to make Thailand a safer place for Burmese refugees to live. Increased efforts to supply aid to the refugees in Thailand as well as to those who have been internally displaced in Burma are desperately needed.


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