Time for a Policy Change
covering burma and southeast asia
Thursday, December 09, 2021


Time for a Policy Change



New options for refugees need to be presented to the Thai government

In many respects, the efforts to assist refugees on the Thai-Burmese border could serve as a case study of success and best practice in managing such humanitarian tasks.

The refugees are self-governed and have a great deal of decision-making authority over how aid is used, and the entire operation is low cost yet effective.  However, the refugee crisis also serves as an example of how years of collective disinterest in a remote conflict and the neglect of the international community to broker a political solution leads to its continuance.

Several Western governments, most notably the US, offer exceptional opportunities for officially registered refugees to permanently settle in their countries. Unfortunately, the number of refugees is just too large, and the majority will not have this chance or may simply choose not to leave, holding out for the possibility of a safe return to their homeland.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) would be wise to interpret this as an opportunity. Access to refugees and influence among them are assets for NGOs that seek a positive outcome to the crisis—after all, NGOs are about the only window they have to the outside world. A new type of engagement that promotes the concepts of peace-building and reconciliation as priorities could be effective.  And perhaps over time, through well-planned civic engagement, a new generation of leaders would be willing to negotiate a managed return.

A new approach to the root causes of displacement inside Burma is also needed.

In many parts of the country, NGOs, community-based organizations and UN agencies are doing good work in addressing basic humanitarian needs. There is increasing communication and convergence between those implementing activities inside Burma and the refugee-assistance activities in Thailand.

However, it must be acknowledged that the level of funding for poverty alleviation and humanitarian assistance inside Burma remains at a very low level in comparison with need. A substantial boost to humanitarian funding inside Burma is needed, but this must not come at the expense of existing funding for the displaced in Thailand.

The donor governments that have financed the Thailand-based assistance operations for many years are keen to promote change. To achieve this change, an intense effort by donors to offer new opportunities and options to the Thai government must be launched and not allowed to falter. 

A pragmatic, patient approach that includes sustained and open dialogue with all government and nongovernmental interlocutors is required. Transitioning from aid delivered directly by international NGOs towards a local solution of allowing for the partial integration of the refugees into Thai communities will also come at a price.  But if a move toward greater refugee assimilation were successful, the human and financial costs would greatly diminish over time, both for the donors and the host communities. 

In recent years, the Thai government has sanctioned access to local justice systems for refugee victims of crime and permitted greater opportunities for individuals to learn trades and even conduct small-scale income-generating activities within the camps.

Given the right mix of diplomacy and incentives, the opportunity should exist to build on these openings and to move from welfare toward progressive solutions. However, this will require policy change at the highest levels within the Thai security apparatus. Pursuing this change is our collective challenge.   

Recently, the NGOs and the offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees have looked at these problems from the perspectives of aid practitioners. 

We in the aid community believe we could make real progress in ensuring a more productive and normalized way of life for the refugees if we can implement projects designed to promote refugee self-sustainability. This course of action is particularly important given that the majority of refugees are under the age of 30. Yet these humanitarian solutions cannot be applied right now because of current restrictions placed on aid agencies and the UN. Without changes to these restrictions, refugees are fated to receive only handouts and live a subsistence lifestyle.

Given the opportunity and allowed temporary, managed integration into Thai society, refugees would bring real economic benefits to Thailand.

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