By Olivia Whenman, Safeworld Student Writer
Burmese refugees in Thailand face a stark choice: they can stay in one of the refugee camps along the border with Burma and be relatively protected from arrest and summary removal to Burma without freedom to move or work. Or, they can live and work outside the camps, but typically without recognised legal status of any kind, leaving them at risk of arrest and deportation (Human Rights Watch)
Grassroots NGO, WEAVE, was founded in 1990 to address the influx of Burmese coming into Thailand 2 years after the student uprising in Burma. More than twenty years later, WEAVE is still operating in refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border, providing women and children with vital services such as education and income support.
WEAVE stands for Women's Education for Advancement and Empowerment.
Mitos Urgel has been the executive director of WEAVE since 2003. I asked Mitos about WEAVE's work in the refugee camps, and how people can help.
For WEAVE, navigating around Thailand’s refugee policies is a challenging one. Thailand is not a party to the United Nations 1951 Refugee Conventionor its 1967 protocol. It is very difficult for humanitarian agencies and NGOs to carry out their duties, and often they have to operate in a challenging environment. Mitos explained:
Furthermore, it is very difficult for agencies such as the UNHCR to carry out their duties. Mitos explained:
“This is the only refugee situation in the whole world that UNHCR are not able to deliver to its maximum capacity. So for example, we have around twenty humanitarian organisations working on the border. And these humanitarian organisations and NGO’s are the ones providing food – not UNHCR. But if you go to Africa, it’s all UN agencies”
In light of this, the journey has not been an easy one. WEAVE may have started as a non-legal entity working within the camps but its work had been known to the national authorities, especially its development projects that are reaching out to the women, children, schools and local teachers. However, WEAVE faces operational constraints in its work within the camps.
WEAVE began working legally within the camps in 2000, and its projects are approved and recognised by the Royal Thai government’s Ministry of Interior. Extraordinarily, WEAVE operates with only eighteen to nineteen member of staff, and they share 6-7 offices in the area. Like many of WEAVE’s former expatriate advisers, Mitos’s contribution to the organisation is necessary and important. The success of this small yet efficiently run organisation is attributed to its staff and advisers. However, the staff are aware that their work, delivery of services and interventions to the camp residents are confined within the camps, also know as ‘temporary shelters’, therefore, WEAVE is obliged to abide by the rules and regulations established by the authorities. One of the many restrictions imposed affects the residents directly. Camp refugees are not allowed to leave the camps or seek employment outside the camps. According to Thai law, residents found outside the camps are subject to arrest, detention, and possibly deportation.
According to UNHCR, the situation of the refugees from Burma in the camps in Thailand is “one of the most protracted in the world”, and in view of this, there is a need to search for a more viable solution to the current protracted situation. The Committee for the Coordination of Services to Displaced Persons in Thailand (CCSDPT) was formed in 1975, as a communications network for NGOs who met regularly to exchange information and to discuss their work, which WEAVE is a member of. The committee had successfully lobbied for humanitarian agencies and camp based NGOs to be given authorisation to explore livelihoods and to provide training within the camps, so that residents are equiped with skills that could increase self-sufficiency and survival when it is time for them to be resettled in third countries. And in 2006, this request was granted by the Thai government.
However, for WEAVE, Mitos said,
“When the organisation was founded in 1990, income generation was one of the major concerns of the organisation. Because the moment women go out to look for money, their vulnerability is further increased”.
The reality is that many Burmese women will experience abuse and exploitation if they leave the refugee camps in search of work to support their families. WEAVE understands the importance of safe income generation and subsequently established a programme that allowed the women residents to generate employment in a familiar and safer environment.
As a member of the Fair Trade Federation in the U.S. since 1997, WEAVE is not legally allowed to sell any merchandise in Thailand. This is due to the restrictions imposed by the authorities and the nature of WEAVE’s work with refugees, and as a result, the organisation has always been insecure about generating sales in Thailand. The membership with Fair Trade obtained in the U.S. is a tool to increase the visibility of WEAVE’s handicraft, as well as to generate sufficient sales. The WEAVE online shop is also another PR and sales generation tool for the women.
The hand-woven handicrafts made by women artisans living in the refugee camps, are for many, their only source of income. It is impressive that these beautiful items are created in such a restrictive environment and under such difficult circumstances. There is both a website and a Facebook page from which people are able to access the merchandise.
Funding cuts have also made it significantly harder for WEAVE to provide some of their services including the number of teachers they have for educational programmes.
“We are also looking for human resources – human capital, so we encourage individuals interested in volunteering.” Mitos said.
Donations to support the teachers are also embraced. They are also on the lookout for partnerships with organisations such as the ‘Global Goods Network.’ These partnerships provide support for initiatives including the ‘Give a Doll’ project, or assist in providing the refugee children with educational materials such as textbooks and pencils. There are many ways the public can assist WEAVE in their mission be it via donating to a program, or volunteering to be a part of a program.
But what sort of programmes does WEAVE exactly provide?
WEAVE’s most impressive feat is its many non-formal educational programs.
In the beginning, very few NGOs provided educational services for the refugees on the Thai-Burma border. WEAVE sought to address this and collaborates its efforts with local women’s organisations and other NGOs to support nursery school projects. Thus, the Early Childhood Program was created:
“We support to over 4,000 preschool children. We believe that early childhood [education] will set for the future development of a person. And so we provide access to this opportunity for young kids, including children with special learning needs.”
Children under 5 years old are taught using a mother tongue-based approach, learning their own language. A Supplementary Feeding Program is also provided to combat the malnutrition that many of these children face in the camps.
WEAVE also supports over thirty nursery schools both within the camps and in displaced areas of Burma. In this instance, community leaders train the teachers. Mitos said that the training program has “supported over three hundred ethnic minority teachers.”
In addition, a Child Development Program also gives children access to learning centres from 9 in the morning to 4 o’clock in the afternoon, 5 days a week. Parent Education is also essential within the camps as many parents are non-literate. Thus, WEAVE provides them with education on child’s rights, child behaviour, child psychology, and child development.
A major issue in the camps is that education is often discontinued after high school as there are very few higher educational opportunities.
Previously this has led to high rates of psychosocial problems including teenage pregnancy.
Because of this, WEAVE established a Women’s Study Program that provides education to girls, generally between the ages of fifteen to twenty one years of age who are interested in learning about women’s issues. Most of these girls were considered ineligible for formal education in the camps for various reasons, and one of which is falling pregnant and they had to discontinue their education.
“So we have a ten month programme for these young girls. And the hope is that they’ll be able to learn life skills so that they will be well prepared to make wise decisions in future but also hoping that they can become future community leaders.” – women community leaders
On the other hand, WEAVE is also providing assistance to increase access to higher education for young girls who have academic abilities, through the Further Studies Programme. It is a 2 year education program provided for those children interested in studying some form of higher education. They are provided with English skills and then matched up with an organisation outside of the country that provides them with a scholarship. Mitos spoke of 2 young students who have recently left for Canada under the World University Service.
Additionally, there is a program for senior women in the community. It focuses on empowering women with necessary skills from women’s rights, leadership, product management to small business management. The hope is that this program will allow the women to become self-governing and self-managing organisations when they go back to Burma.
One issue that WEAVE is faced with is witnessing the psychosocial impacts of prolonged encampment on the residents. Despite the harsh reality of life within the camps, at the very least, the people have a space of their own, even if limited, compared to life in the big cities which increases the levels of vulnerability. However, one of the issues that WEAVE is faced with is witnessing the psychosocial impacts on the residents as a result of encampment.
UNHCR defines a protracted refugee situation as, “one in which refugees find themselves in a long-lasting and intractable state of limbo.” They may not be in a conflict situation and their lives may not be at risk, but their basic rights, economic, social, and psychological needs are unfulfilled after years of living in the camps, and in the case of the Burmese refugees, many have been living in the camps for almost 2 decades.
This prolonged confinement with restrictions on movement, and dependency on outside aid, many camp residents experience sexual and gender-based violence, domestic violence, early marriage, unwanted pregnancy, unsafe abortion, teenage pregnancy, and other social and mental health problems.
“There is no process of counselling or even talking through what they’ve gone through” Mitos said.
Healthcare services in the clinics within the camps is basic and limited, and is mainly to provide first-aid and immunisation for children. In the event of serious health concerns that require professional medial attention, residents are referred to national Thai hospitals. An insignificant number of NGOs are extending mental health services which is usually mainstreamed in their programmes. These programmes are similar to national community-based organisations’ outreach programmes that focus on drug and substance addiction. The various NGOs that provide healthcare on the border coordinate their efforts with the Thai Ministry of Public Health (Department of Disease Control), to monitor the health and safety of the residents within the camps, and also to prevent the spread of migratory diseases to neighbouring Thai villages.
It is clear that the Burmese refugees are in a precarious situation. Forced to choose between a home in turmoil, and a country that does not identify them as having rights, is certainly not easy. However, Mitos highlights that:
“I always believe in the saying ‘there’s no place like home’… Nobody wants to be displaced. Nobody wants to be. We want to have our own settled life. A place we call our home, a place with a community that needs us or welcomes us and provides our rights. But because of the circumstance, people have no choice but to leave their home in order to survive, not only for them but also for their children.”
It took many of the people in the refugee camps, months or years to decide if they would leave their home in Burma. These people face rivers, thick jungles, starvation, cross fire, and malaria to get to the safety of a refugee camps. As Mitos put it:
“The risk is really very high. But they take the risk anyway.”
Many have arrived at the camps with missing limbs, and some children arrived without parents.
In September of this year, the Thai government announced that Burma was, “clearing landmines along the borders, preparing to build shelters and other infrastructure... to be ready within one year." – the Thai National Security Council (NSC) said in a statement, citing its Secretary-General Wichean Potephosree.
However, many of the political, economical, and social issues that the refugees fled from are still present. It is feared that the Burmese refugees will be repatriated back into Burma by force under the guise of a restored nation. The Burmese refugees would face an uncertain future. Recent polls conducted by NGOs indicate that at least 60 percent of refugees fear for their lives should they be returned to Burma. WEAVE has also heard accounts from individual camp residents and from rights groups. The collective responses indicate that residents are concerned because they feel there are no clear incentives in returning to Burma. There is deep mistrust and prejudice towards the ruling government, and this insecurity is compounded by their lack of faith in the government’s ability in resolving the political, social and welfare issues that exist in the country. A huge section of the refugee community in the camps were born and raised in the camps, and have never seen Burma, so they regard the camps as home. The Burmese government has given assurance that the safety, protection and dignity of the refugees will be respected upon repatriation. However, organisations for the ethnic Kachin and Karen people stated that they would like to see “genuine political answers” to the government’s repatriation proposals, adding that, “no amount of certainty can convince the refugees to go back home since basic needs are insufficient and inadequate like accommodation, employment, healthcare and education,”
Undoubtedly, here is a chance for the displaced to finally return to Burma, however, the government needs to start taking action to address these concerns. And unfortunately, in Thailand, they are neither legal or wanted, and they do not have identities either.
Generating bigger visibility of WEAVE is essential in helping the ethnic Burmese people. Not only does it provide vital services, it provides the ethnic Burmese people with invaluable opportunities, skills and knowledge.
The ethnic Burmese are able to empower themselves. They are able to stand up against both the chaos back home and government providing them with flawed asylum. It is because of WEAVE that for many ethnic Burmese, “knowledge is power.”
The Burmese are able to empower themselves. They are able to stand up against both the chaos back home and government providing them with flawed asylum. It is because of WEAVE that for many Burmese, “knowledge is power.”
Because no matter what, no matter if they are forcibly repatriated or if they stay in the camps, these people will have a stronger voice woven together by the knowledge given to them by WEAVE and people like Mitos Urgel.
To order WEAVE handicrafts, please email: email@example.com
Olivia Whenman is a Safeworld Student Writer in Australia. She is studying for a degree in Media, with a focus on writing and journalism.
"I live my life by the Anne Frank quote, “Paper has more patience than people.” Because for everything I write, much of it may be overlooked. However, somewhere down the line, someone might read what I had to say and be inspired to make a difference, and this is what motivates me."