Overcrowded And Underfunded: Karen Refugees Face A Dismal Present And An Uncertain Future


Paradoxically, the Karen refugee crisis is simultaneously the world’s longest-running civil war and one of the world’s most under-reported humanitarian crises. Currently, there are roughly 100,000 Karen people living in nine refugee camps tucked away in the jungle of the Thai-Myanmar border. Many of these camps have existed for upward of 30 years and continue to swell. The Karen face restricted movement, educational and employment opportunities, and are unable to safely return to their homeland. Meanwhile, international attention to the crisis has dropped and the allocation of humanitarian assistance has been diverted to other conflicts, leaving the Karen to grapple with stagnation and uncertainty. 

The Karen are one of Myanmar’s many persecuted minority groups, hailing from eastern Myanmar’s Karen State. A year after Burma gained their independence from Britain in 1948, the Karen began a struggle for independence. This was met by a disproportionate response by the Burmese military, including extrajudicial killings, rape, and the razing of villages. And so began a seven-decade civil war between the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Tatmadaw (the armed forces of Myanmar). The 1980s saw the first major exodus of Karen refugees into Thailand and the first camps were built. The camps were later expanded in 2006 in response to an escalation of violence in the region. In 2015, the Tatmadaw signed a ceasefire deal with the KNU and seven other armed groups across the country, but seasonal fighting still lingers, and new refugees continue to arrive in the camps.

Several of the camps are overcrowded. The most notorious is Mae La, the largest camp, housing over 40,000 refugees and has a suicide rate three times the global average, according to the International Organization for Migration. Many other camps rest in remote mountain locations, beyond the reach of cell reception, and are far away from hospitals and other essential services. Decreased international attention to the Karen people has been coupled with significant cuts in funds for food, shelter, and medical and sanitation supplies. The mainstream media seldom reports on the Karen, favouring more sensational stories, or issues that are deemed to be of greater geopolitical significance. International donors have cut back on their assistance to the border. Since Aung San Suu Kyi came to power in 2012, many donors have moved their funding to inside Myanmar to assist in the democratization process. Others have chosen to redirect their funding to the recent Rohingya refugee crisis. 

Additionally, the Thai government has done a poor job of managing the Karen people and the camps. Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol. These documents enumerate the minimum standards and legal obligations towards refugees and are crucial for ensuring the protection of them and asylum seekers. Thailand has had decades worth of experience with millions of refugees coming from across Southeast Asia, yet they still lack a proper legal framework for asylum claims and refuse to grant formal legal status to refugees. Without these protections, refugees in Thailand face higher risks of human rights violations, such as human trafficking, arbitrary detention, and enforced refoulement. The Karen are not allowed to leave the camps, risking arrest or worse if they do. They are also not legally permitted to work, leaving many with no other option but to engage in work that is dangerous or degrading. 

Since Myanmar’s transition to democracy, Thailand has repeatedly threatened to close the camps, pressuring the Karen to return to Myanmar. However, for most of the 100,000 Karen refugees in the camps, a safe return home is not feasible. Despite the 2015 ceasefire, sporadic fighting and unpredictable violence poses a danger to those in the Karen State. Unexploded landmines contaminate much of the region, and the homes and livelihoods the Karen fled from decades ago have been destroyed or their land has been confiscated. According to a report by the Karen Human Rights Group about the repatriation process, travel conditions are often dangerous and delayed, and there is a lack of food and water. Additionally, they noted that many of the designated resettlement sites are located close to Tatmadaw army camps.

In the past decade, tens of thousands of Karen refugees have resettled to third countries, mostly to the U.S. and Australia. However, the Thai government has severely restricted the ability of UNHCR to conduct interviews to determine refugee status of people from Myanmar. The repatriation process has lost steam in recent years, and the U.S. has drastically cut back on the number of refugees it allows under the presidency of Donald Trump.

Due to decreased international attention, mismanagement of the camps, and a defective peace process in Myanmar, the 100,000 Karen refugees on the border continue to face uncertainty and their options are limited and dismal. Many of them have been confined to the camps for over thirty years and their prospect of resettlement or successful repatriation remains slim. The crisis is complex and reflects the faults of a multitude of actors, institutions, and processes, but there are some clear areas for change that could improve the situation of the Karen. 

First, it is imperative that more international attention is called to the plight of the Karen refugees. Influential international diplomatic and advocacy organizations such as the UN, ASEAN, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International have extensively covered and condemned the oppression of the Rohingya, but they must take a more comprehensive job of illuminating the other crises in Myanmar, including the Karen. This will hopefully catalyze more international media attention and bring back influential donors to replenish funds for the Karen to access enough food, water, sanitation, shelter, and education.

The Thai government must also bear more responsibility for caring for the Karen refugees – a job that they have repeatedly neglected. For the sake of justice, safety, and stability, it is imperative that they join the 149 other nations by signing onto the 1951 Refugee Convention and granting recognition for the Karen people. They deserve legal and safe means of working, accessing education, and contributing to the Thai economy and society. Finally, Thailand must cease its threats to close the camps. While successful repatriation of the Karen is an ideal goal to aspire to, forcing them to do so prematurely could be calamitous. 

However, our ultimate aspiration is that the Karen and other refugees fleeing Myanmar are able to safely return to their homelands. This requires decisive action from the government to advance the democratization and peace process that has been chiefly sluggish and lackadaisical. The Tatmadaw must be compelled to uphold the 2015 ceasefire agreement and halt their intimidation tactics and land confiscation in the Karen State and other ethnic areas. Finally, the Myanmar government must commit to ensuring that the repatriated refugees have adequate access to employment and social services so they can safely and meaningfully contribute to the creation of a more peaceful Myanmar.

Dorothy Settles

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