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Stepping into Uncertainty: Refugee and IDP Experiences of Return in Southeast Myanmar

September 10th, 2020  •  Author:   Karen Human Rights Group  •  6 minute read
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Refugee repatriations and IDP returns in Myanmar have steadily increased since the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, as have repatriation and return initiatives. If ethnic minorities are to assume an active and equal role in Myanmar’s future, then political, economic and social reintegration of returnees is critical. The situation of refugee and IDP returnees in rural Southeast Myanmar remains however extremely difficult, with most struggling to meet their most basic needs and little means of even beginning to build a sustainable livelihood.

In June 2019, KHRG published a news bulletin on the situation of recently repatriated refugees in Mae La Way Ler Moo, Hpa-an District and Lay Hpa Htaw, Dooplaya District. The journey to their new homes was spent cramped in the back of dusty trucks, without enough food or water. A lack of basic social services, agricultural lands and income-generating opportunities awaited them on their arrival to resettlement sites. Most were repatriated to Myanmar in February 2019 as part of a voluntary process led by the Thai and Myanmar governments with the support of the UNHCR and other partner organisations. The UNHCR-facilitated repatriation that took place in February 2019 was only the third in what is expected to be an on-going initiative.

As future returnees could potentially face similar challenges as those described above, KHRG believed it paramount to identify the shortcomings of the repatriation initiatives that have been conducted thus far and provide recommendations to address them. This report is an attempt to provide a fuller analysis of the challenges faced by returnees than what was presented in the June 2019 news bulletin. To that end, it encompasses all categories of returnees, including refugees repatriating through the UNHCR, those who repatriated “spontaneously” (by their own means), along with IDP returnees.


KHRG interviews with returnees suggest that current support frameworks are so insufficient that those who do receive return assistance are generally no more capable of rebuilding their lives than those who have returned “spontaneously” with no institutional or governmental support whatsoever. Moreover, unmet promises about resettlement support and follow-up have left returnees vulnerable to further hardship, and even future displacement if they are unable to adequately rebuild their lives in their new localities. Ultimately, those who benefit from facilitated repatriation assistance live alongside other returnees, as well as local villagers and thus often face similar challenges, particularly after any initial support runs out.

Although some accommodation has been made to assist with access to legal documents, many returnees continue to struggle to obtain the documents to which they are entitled as citizens. As such, full political, social and economic inclusion will also be hampered, as access to land, education, and employment require civil documentation. Furthermore, interest in the upcoming national elections and local decision-making is extremely low, since the daily struggles to meet even their most basic needs remains the central preoccupation of most returnees. Concerns about security and safety are also still prevalent for some due to the presence of ethnic armed actors as well as landmines and UXO (unexploded ordnance). In the absence of economic and physical security, returnees are likely to remain marginalised as political and social actors in building a democratic, peaceful, and stable society.

Lack of confidence in the peace process, distrust in government administration, and feelings of being discounted by the current government were also expressed by returnees and serve as clear indicators that the historical realities of conflict and violence are not yet (but in need of) being addressed as part of repatriation and reintegration initiatives. By calling attention to these problems, the current report highlights the challenges faced by returnees so that actions can be taken to better promote their sustainable and dignified return. Throughout this report, KHRG privileges the lived experiences of return to amplify the concerns of returnees, whose voices should be taken into account by the Myanmar government and relevant ethnic armed organisations and aid providers.

Key Figures and Approach

A total of 1,039 refugees have returned to Myanmar under the UNHCR-led tripartite scheme: 71 in October 2016, 93 in May 2018, 565 in February 2019 and 310 in July 2019. Although this figure is set to increase in the near future, it pales in comparison to the number of displaced persons who choose informal forms of return. Despite the existence of official repatriation channels, information from The Border Consortium (TBC) suggests that most returns happen outside of these formal mechanisms. Over 18,000 refugees are estimated to have returned to Myanmar spontaneously (i.e., without UNHCR- or government-sponsored assistance) from 2012 to 2017, and a further 3,390 refugees in 2018.

The number of IDP returns has also increased in recent years. According to TBC, approximately 162,000 displaced persons attempted to either return to former villages or resettle in surrounding areas of Southeast Myanmar between 2013 and 2018. TBC noted, nevertheless, that the sustainability of these movements and prospects for reintegration remain in doubt due to on-going security and livelihood concerns. In fact, 11,000 of those 162,000 displaced persons were originally repatriated refugees, but were included by TBC in the above calculations because TBC believes that many of them may now be in a state of internal displacement due to difficulties with resettlement.

To highlight the situations faced by these three different types of returnees (facilitated, spontaneous, and internally displaced), KHRG chose to conduct interviews with IDPs and refugees in different locations of rural Southeast Myanmar. Altogether, KHRG interviewed 40 returnees (21 men and 19 women); and 4 local leaders (2 men and 2 women). The interviews were conducted in 20 villages spread across all seven districts within KHRG’s operation area.

The principles laid down in the UNHCR Handbook for Voluntary Repatriation (1996) and its Handbook for Repatriation and Reintegration Activities (2004) were then used to assess whether the conditions for successful reintegration were provided to returnees, and whether returnees feel that they are able to “secure the necessary political, economic, legal and social conditions to maintain their life, livelihood and dignity.”

The current sample of interviews does not match the global trends in return strategies for Southeast Myanmar. As previously mentioned, the vast majority of returns have been spontaneous, yet KHRG interviews were predominantly with those who returned through the UNHCR tripartite agreement. Because these returnees thave primarily been placed in large, accessible settlement areas, it is much easier to gather information from and bout this population. Given the constraints in identifying spontaneous returnees, both refugee and IDP, research will likely continue to underrepresented these returnees and fail to fully capture their experiences unless concerted effort is made in the future to access these populations.

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