Donor Support for IDP and Refugee Camps Must Continue Until Durable Return and Sustainable Peace Can be Achieved

April 6th, 2017  •  Author:   Progressive Voice  •  8 minute read
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The predicament of Myanmar’s [1] internally displaced persons (IDPs) was again brought to the spotlight when State Counsellor, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi visited IDP camps in Kachin State last week. In meetings held in and around Myitkyina, camp residents expressed their livelihood woes and local groups urged government action to address the rising need for aid—to which the State Counsellor responded with calls for greater local and regional self-sufficiency. Her response echoes the rationale adopted by some international donors in the past when funding is cut from areas no longer in active conflict.

While reducing the reliance of IDPs on rations and cash hand-outs may make sense in theory, IDPs have no viable alternative to relying on them. On the one hand, they are unable to return home due to a variety of security issues, including ongoing armed conflict and the presence of landmines in their native lands. Often, they also don’t receive adequate training to prepare for re-integration into their already compromised livelihoods. On the other hand, staying in the camps without donor assistance is difficult given the lack of resources, such as agricultural space, needed to sustain their livelihood. As an IDP from Karen State’s Ei Tu Hta Camp describes, “We aren’t able to do large-scale farming. If we grow vegetables, we will earn a little money. But we have no investment to do trade. As we [currently] eat only [IDP] rations, we will be in trouble if [the donors] really do stop their support.” Greater self-sufficiency is further complicated by the increased obstructions to movement in and out of the camps, due to government blockages and the risks associated with ongoing conflict.

“We aren’t able to do large-scale farming. If we grow vegetables, we will earn a little money. But we have no investment to do trade. As we [currently] eat only [IDP] rations, we will be in trouble if [the donors] really do stop their support.”

Funding shortfalls have led to shortages of basic resources—including of food and medicine—in IDP camps across the country, with further cuts underway in Karen and Shan States. The problem has been compounded by the government’s ongoing restrictions on humanitarian access. Last month, an outbreak of diarrhea in Ei Tu Hta Camp was exacerbated by a medicine shortage.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are over 99,000 IDPs in Kachin and Shan States as of March 2017, the number having fluctuated greatly due to recent outbreaks of conflict. The IDP situation also remains precarious in Rakhine State, where over 120,000 are displaced, and in ethnic areas of Myanmar’s southeast, where controversy over development projects and increased militarization continue to threaten outbreak of conflict. Recent protests against development projects by local groups in Mon, Karenni, and Karen States outline the ongoing fight over natural resources. As of February 2017, an estimated 5,500 remain displaced in Karen State due to the September 2016 eruption of armed conflict, at the heart of which was a fight to secure the site of the stalled Hatgyi Dam project. The security of local people in Karen State remains the most concerning, as militarization by the Myanmar Army in the state risks undermining the relative stability that was secured when the Karen National Union (KNU) signed the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) in 2015.

It is in this precarious domestic context that governments and international agencies have reinvigorated the push for refugee repatriation. Dwindling donor support for refugee camps has put pressure on camp residents to leave. Moreover, authorities have also begun explicit encouragements for repatriation. On 23 March, 2017 a Thai Army General announced that the Myanmar Government had prepared an area in Karen State for about 70,000 of the approximately 100,000 refugees currently living on the Thailand-Myanmar border, as current peace talks with ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) in Myanmar “look promising.” But as efforts toward repatriation begin, the situation on the ground seems increasingly worrying. Speaking at a launch of the Asia Foundation’s latest report last week, independent researcher Kim Jolliffe said that the KNU—NCA-signatory and the controller of areas in Karen State apparently prepared for the repatriated refugees—faced an “inevitable” return to open conflict against the Myanmar Army in the absence of a tangible commitment by the Myanmar Government to consider its political demands.

Insensitivity to the realities on the ground is persistent within the international community. In a move widely denounced as premature by local and international civil society groups, the World Food Programme cut food aid in Myanmar in 2015 with a rationale “predominantly [due to] improved household food security situation among IDPs.” The “milestone” October 2016 repatriation of refugees coordinated by UNHCR, other international agencies, and the Thailand and Myanmar Governments was riddled with miscommunication and lack of consultation with local groups, leading to nearly a quarter of the repatriated reporting housing concerns almost immediately after arrival.

According to the United Nations Principles on Housing and Property Restitution for Refugees and Displaced Persons (the “Pinheiro Principles”), refugees and IDPs have the right to voluntary return in “safety and dignity,” as well as the right to compensation or restoration of property that has been arbitrarily deprived. Myanmar’s current domestic situation, plagued with irresponsible development and ongoing armed conflict, as well as a peace process hampered by miscommunication and mistrust (demonstrated well by last week’s rebuke by EAOs of the State Counsellor’s claim that five of them would sign the nationwide ceasefire agreement), could hardly be a guarantee of either right. Encouraging premature repatriation will raise the likelihood of secondary displacement for those that return, and thus exacerbate the current need for increased funding.

Until the safe, sustainable, and dignified return of refugees and IDPs to their homes can be guaranteed, international donors should continue funding and supporting existing camps. Discontinuing support will only undercut future repatriation efforts, as people without adequate basic resources would make woeful candidates for a proper return. When the time comes, governments and international agencies alike must do more to disclose timely and adequate information, while ensuring that IDPs, refugees, and local host populations, as well as local civil society groups, are consulted on matters that determine the future of their communities. The inextricable relationship between conflict and land-related issues must also not be overlooked. It is vital that the Myanmar Government explicitly incorporate Housing, Land, and Property (HLP) rights in the NCA, as has been done with many contemporary peace agreements, including the 2000 Arusha Accords in Burundi. Failure to do so would undermine prospects for a sustainable peace, and further jeopardize the livelihoods of populations in already dire conditions.


[1] One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.

Resources from the past week


Statements and Press Releases

Myanmar: Investigate Police Use of Force Against Protestors at Troubled Mine
By Amnesty International

Former Prisoner of Conscience Detained Again: Htin Kyaw
By Amnesty International

HRC34: Joint Civil Society End of Session Statement
By  FORUM-ASIA, International Service for Human Rights and other NGOs

ကယန္းမ်ိဳးဆက္သစ္လူငယ္၏ (၇) ႀကိမ္ေျမာက္ညီလာခံအၿပီး ဒုတိယႏွစ္ ႏွစ္ပတ္လည္အစည္းအေ၀း၏ ထုတ္ျပန္ ေၾကညာခ်က္
By Kayan New Generation Youth

ေနျပည္ေတာ္ေကာင္စီနယ္ေျမ ပ်ဥ္းမနားျမိဳ႕နယ္ ျပည္ေထာင္ကိုးရြာ ကယန္းအမ်ိဳးသားေန႔က်င္းပခြင့္ ပိတ္ပင္သည့္အေပၚ ကယန္းမ်ိဳးဆက္သစ္လူငယ္(KNGY)၏ သေဘာထားထုတ္ျပန္ေၾကညာခ်က္
By Kayan New Generation Youth



Policy Dialogue Brief Series No. 17: Ethnic Armed Actors and Justice Provision in Myanmar

By Brian McCartan and Kim Jolliffe/The Asia Foundation

မူဝါဒေရးရာေဆြးေႏြးခ်က္စာတမ္းငယ္ အမွတ္(၁၇) – တိုင္းရင္းသားလက္နက္ကိုင္ အုပ္စုမ်ား၏ တရားစီရင္ေရး စနစ္မ်ား
By Brian McCartan and Kim Jolliffe/The Asia Foundation

Restitution in Myanmar: Building Lasting Peace, National Reconciliation and Economic Prosperity Through a Comprehensive Housing, Land and Property Restitution Programme
By Displacement Solutions and Norwegian Refugee Council

Toungoo Situation Update: Thandaunggyi Township, June to August 2016
By Karen Human Rights Group

Dooplaya Situation Update: Kawkareik Township and Noh T’Kaw Township, April to May 2016
By Karen Human Rights Group

Ceasefires, Governance, and Development: The Karen National Union in Times of Change
By Kim Jolliffe/The Asia Foundation

အပစ္အခတ္ရပ္စဲေရး၊ အုပ္ခ်ဳပ္ေရးႏွင့္ ဖြံ႔ၿဖိဳးတိုးတက္မႈ အေျပာင္းအလဲကာလမ်ားၾကားရွိ ကရင္အမ်ိဳးသားအစည္းအ႐ံုး
By Kim Jolliffe/The Asia Foundation

Policy Dialogue Brief Series No. 18: The Provision of Public Goods and Services in Urban Areas in Myanmar
By Michael Winter and Mya Nandar Thin/ The Asia Foundation

“အေမွာင္ရိပ္တြင္ ေတြ႕ရွိျခင္း” မူးယစ္ေဆး၀ါးဆိုင္ရာ တရားဥပေဒစိုးမိုးေရးလုပ္ငန္းမ်ား၏ အက်ိဳးသက္ေရာက္မ
By National Drug User Network and Transnational Institute

Arbitrary Arrest of Two Villagers by Burma Border Guard Force in Mong Yawng, Eastern Shan State
By Shan Human Rights Foundation

Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”