Field Study Day 2: UNHCR + TBC + IRC

Mae Sot, Monday February 3, 2014

On Monday we had a busy start with three very different meetings: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, where two of their Protection Officers discussed the Agency’s priorities for 2014 and how they operate and enhance protection to a vulnerable population in a country that is not signatory of the Refugee Convention. They talked about the current changing context in the border; the official UN position in regards to Myanmar; and the possibility of return for the hundreds of thousands that have been in protracted situation in Thailand for the last thirty years. The bottom line is that they do not think that the conditions are not appropriate for return. With all this, UNHCR Thailand continues to respond to protection needs of refugees from Myanmar (“people displaced by conflict”); they are advocating for a national asylum mechanism and have funded a project on peace and reconciliation in the camp that uses mediation and restorative justice (implemented by International Rescue Committee’s Legal Access Center). One crude reality with the voluntary repatriation program is that the younger Burmese want to go back, while the older generation refuses to do so, out of fear -and with reason.  It came to my mind that this is a parallel with my clients’ children in the United States, who don’t understand what their parents went through escaping persecution and torture to secure a better life for them. But I must remind myself that comparisons are unfair.

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Fellow Ian, from Malawi, thanks UNHCR Staff on behalf of our Class. 

From there, we had a very different meeting with Chris Clifford from The Border Consortium (TBC) from whom we got a more critical view of the change in context and a different picture of reality. Chris Clifford -using something similar to a mind map– walked us through the history of the 120,000 refugees that live in the country; TBC’s strategic plan and its various programs to address their needs. An organization that was formed by “volun-tourism” today counts with a more solid program that provides food, shelter, nutrition, Community Managed Targeting and Income Generation (IGD) while also looking into conducting operations into Myanmar by being very involved with Non State Actors.  One very important insight we heard from him was the importance of letting the refugees decide and of not isolating them (versus the approach of some NGOs of making the decisions for them). It was a sound reminder of the importance of ensuring participation of the affected parties in any development project, so that their voices are heard and that they own any accorded solution.

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Chris Clifford presenting to the RWP Group

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After lunch, we traveled to the Mae Sot office of International Rescue Committee (IRC), one of my agency’s Collaborative partners. I’d like to think that the Los Angeles office of IRC is responsible for me doing the work I do today as they received me as a volunteer for five months in 2003 and later sent me off to LAFLA with great recommendations, so I will always be grateful to their staff for sharing their time and mentoring me in my first refugee-related job. Once again, while so far away, I felt home. Why is this theme so recurrent?

We were kindly received by Atchara, the Project Coordinator of IRC’s Legal Assistance Center (LAC). This program funded by UNHCR promotes sustainable access to justice for refugees by strengthening engagement and the capacity of response within the camp and with Thai authorities. LAC increases legal awareness and helps refugees assert their rights and access remedies. Unfortunately, refugees don’t know what’s going on outside the camp, nor that they are under the jurisdiction of Thai law so this program empowers them immensely. Atchara highlighted that the Karen refugees come with their own practices and that they are very autocratic, so there was a huge need for training on human rights and human standards of treatment of detainees. They have been away from their country for a long time and have been confined to remote closed camps. The lack of resources and many barriers make the Royal Thai government reluctant of many issues.

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On a side note, shortly after arriving, we heard from her that there was a fire at the Umpiem Mai refugee camp -which we later found out was controlled. It was worrisome as there had been some fires in December at Mae La, having to do with the type of construction materials they use for these “temporary” shelters. I keep thinking of the intention behind the semantics of all these terms, and how the Thai government is trying to diminish the importance of these groups seeking humanitarian protection within their territory -and that it’s not just the fact that they are not parties of the 1951 Refugee Convention (nor its 1967 Protocol) but that admitting that there’s such a huge need debilitates their image.

After an intense first day of institutional visits, I met up with Langan, an alumna of the Rotary World Peace fellowship who now lives in Mae Sot and works for IRC. We had met years ago at the California Refugee Summit while she worked for the Oakland Unified School District and had reconnected last year thanks to Rotary. Now she’s working at the Resettlement Support Center of International Rescue Committee -which is in charge of processing the Burmese refugees that are being resettled in the United States. What an amazing network this is!

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