Burma produces the world’s fifth highest number of refugees, above that of both war-torn Sudan and Colombia, according to a UN report released today to mark World Refugee Day.
It emphasised that developing countries are the ones who are shouldering the burden of those fleeing violence and persecution, a concern that will ring true for the hundreds of thousands who have escaped Burma to neighbouring Thailand and Bangladesh.
The report found that 415,700 registered refugees hail from Burma, which places it in the top five of global source countries, and the highest in East Asia. The top country, Afghanistan, has produced more than three million refugees.
State-sanctioned persecution against the Muslim Rohingya minority group in western Burma has led to hundreds of thousands fleeing across the border to Bangladesh. Only 28,000 of these are registered by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which says another 200,000 live in squalid, unofficial refugee camps. Other estimates have put the figure close to 400,000.
Kitty McKinsey, Asia-Pacific spokesperson for the UNHCR, which released the annual Global Trends 2010 report today, told DVB that the Bangladeshi government has “not permitted” the agency to register the vast majority of Rohingya, who hail from western Burma’s Arakan state.
Those who are unregistered and who live outside of the two official UN-run camps lead a “precarious existence”, McKinsey said, where they cannot access education and healthcare and have no official identity. Aid group Medicins Sans Frontiers have said previously that the Rohingya are subject to a “chronic humanitarian crises”.
The report also said that Thailand was sheltering 96,675 refugees in nine camps along the border with Burma. Sally Thompson, deputy director of the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), said however that this figure does not account for the 50,000 or so who have arrived from Burma since the last official registration in 2005.
TBBC puts the figure living in camps at 143,000, nearly 80 percent of whom are from war-torn Karen state, where the insurgent Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) has been battling the Burmese government for more than 60 years. Thompson said however that the UNHCR’s figures do not tell the whole story.
“Outside of the camp we believe that many of the people who are in the migrant work force would have same claims as the people in refugee camps”, she told DVB. Around three million Burmese in total are estimated to be living in Thailand.
TBBC also believes there are around 450,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in rural eastern Burma alone, many of whom have fled their villages and live in makeshift homes in the jungle.
The UN report said that 797,388 stateless people were living within Burma’s borders out of a total population “of concern” of 859,403. McKinsey said the stateless figure referred to those in northern Arakan state where the Rohingya hail from.
Gains have also been made in the past year: close to 20,000 refugees from Burma have now been resettled by the UNHCR, more than any other population documented in the report. Additionally, Japan’s first ever intake of resettled refugees last year were from Karen state.