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"Before you were born, your mother ran": Displacement and disillusion in south-east Myanmar

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Executive Summary

Myanmar has been making headlines for its apparent campaign of ethnic cleansing against the country’s Rohingya. Violent attacks against civilians have forced over 745,000 people to flee into Bangladesh since August 2017. Given the scale of the Rohingya crisis, the rest of the country is receiving little attention.

This study – part of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre’s Invisible Majority thematic series – seeks to analyse the relationship between internal displacement, cross-border movements and durable solutions in south-east Myanmar. Based on 163 interviews with internally displaced people (IDPs), returning refugees and refugees, the report examines drivers of displacement, priorities and preconditions for voluntary return, and obstacles and opportunities for durable solutions. The report presents the following key findings.

Multiple displacements precede cross-border movements

The conflict opposing Myanmar’s army and the Karen National Liberation Army in the south-east of the country is one of the longest ongoing ethnic conflicts in the world. Although a nationwide ceasefire agreement was signed in 2015, clashes continue. Violent counterinsurgency operations have included direct attacks against civilians, persecution and forced recruitment. A third of research participants have been displaced more than five times, often hiding in the jungle before returning to their homes. Cross-border movement is often a last resort; nearly half of the refugees and returning refugees surveyed were internally displaced before crossing into Thailand.

Aid has been cut to IDP camps, but barriers to return remain

About 162,000 people – predominantly ethnic Karen – remain internally displaced in south-east Myanmar. Internal displacement in the region has many faces: some IDPs live in hiding in the jungle; the army have resettled others into forced relocation sites. Only a small portion of IDPs in south-east Myanmar live in camps. Within Ee Tu Hta IDP camp, loss of donor support has affected the provision of food aid. Most IDPs surveyed intend to return to their areas of origin in the future, despite better safety in Ee Tu Hta. Insecurity continues to represent a key barrier to return; armed clashes in 2018 discouraged many potential returnees.

Refugees in Thailand face protection challenges and lack of recognition

There are around 95,000 people from Myanmar in Thailand’s nine refugee camps. A large share of the country’s undocumented migrants may also have grounds to be recognised as refugees – but Thailand is a non-signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention. As employment is officially prohibited for both refugees and undocumented migrants, access to income-generating opportunities is fraught with protection challenges. At the same time, decreased donor support is contributing to a reduction in monthly rice rations and worsening service provision, which may be encouraging potentially premature returns to Myanmar.

Expectations regarding refugee returns have not been met

Following positive steps towards democratisation in Myanmar in 2012, the international community believed the majority of refugees would return. In reality, just over 19,000 people have returned from Thailand’s refugee camps. The overwhelming majority of these returns have been spontaneous. Lack of trust in the current ceasefire agreement makes refugees hesitant to participate in the UN Refugee Agency’s facilitated return process. Spontaneous returnees, however, do not benefit from the same level of support.