Why Refugees Still Flee Burma


The big beneficiaries of the Malaysia Solution would have been the 4000 refugees from Malaysia who would have been resettled in Australia. It is likely that a sizable number of those resettled would have been from Burma. Of Malaysia’s 80,000 registered refugees, over 90 per cent are from Burma.

Like Malaysia, Thailand, India and Bangladesh have large Burmese refugee and migrant worker populations. According to the UN High Commission for Refugees, Burma is the fifth largest source of refugees in the world.

Over the past few years, refugees from Burma have been targeted in large scale resettlement programs by a number of different countries, such as the US and Australia. In the last four years 65,000 Burmese refugees have been resettled to third countries.

Despite this large scale resettlement, the exodus of refugees from Burma continues. In Thailand refugee numbers in the nine refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border remain largely unchanged, even after people have been resettled.

Pull factors — life in a refugee camp and possible resettlement — may be the reason refugee numbers have remained stable despite these programs. However this does not take into account the considerable push factors that exist in Burma — and these push factors remain unchanged, despite the recent appearance of change or reform in Burma.

Burma will continue to be a major source of refugees until the needs of people with no choice but to flee their homeland are addressed. This would require some serious changes in Burma.

Ongoing military attacks targeting civilians, in violation of international law, must stop. Since March over 50,000 men, women and children have fled their homes because of military attacks in Kachin and Shan States in northern Burma. They join half a million displaced persons in eastern Burma who are hiding in the jungle for extended periods of time in appalling conditions because it is not safe for them to return home.

The systematic and widespread violation of human rights by the Burmese army and authorities also must stop. These include, but are not limited to: the rape of ethnic women and girls; the use of villagers as slave labour; the destruction or confiscation of land and property; forced evictions; beatings; torture; and extra-judicial killings.

Improvements in Burma’s human rights crisis are unlikely to come while those in power continue to deny that such abuses are occurring. Nor will they come while perpetrators of such crimes have impunity. Article 445 of Burma’s 2008 Constitution states that:

"’No proceeding shall be instituted against the said Councils (SLORC/SPDC) or any member thereof or any member of the Government, in respect of any act done in the execution of their respective duties".

This means that any person who has been an official of the regime since 1988 cannot be held legally accountable for any actions they take including the gross and systematic violation of human rights abuses.

Another push factor is the lack of democracy. There have been some changes in Burma over the past year, such as the elections last November, the formation of the new parliament and the transfer of power to a nominally civilian Government, but real democratic reform is still lacking.

The most visible demonstration of the lack of will for real reform is the continued imprisonment of 2000 political prisoners in Burma. Their unconditional release would send a strong signal that there is a real commitment to reform on behalf of the Burmese authorities. However, rather than release political prisoners, the authorities deny that any such individuals exist in Burma.

Those who engage in the pro-democracy movement continue to risk long prison sentences. Aung San Suu Kyi is free today but the laws that allowed her to be imprisoned for more than 15 of the last 21 years are still in place. Journalists, comedians and charity workers also face arrest and imprisonment. When faced with the possibility of a long prison sentence, like prominent political prisoner Hso Ten who is currently serving a 106 year sentence, fleeing for a neighbouring country is an alternative option.

Until these issues and a number of others are addressed, the exodus of people from Burma will continue. It is in the best interest of Burma as a nation to address these issues but those in power lack the will to make genuine changes. And until these changes occur, hundreds of thousands of refugees will continue to cross borders seeking an uncertain future in another country.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.