Up to 5,000 Burmese children living at the Thai border face malnourishment, as the international donor community withdraws funds and shifts its attention back to Burma.
As many as 2,000 children are experiencing stunted growth and nearly 1,000 are acutely malnourished, said Andrew Scadding, director of the Thai Children’s Trust, during an interview with DVB.
The UK-based NGO has provided food aid through local schools since 2010, but their money is running out. Global aid budgets are down and donors are redirecting much of their remaining funds into Burma’s emerging market.
“The number of agencies working on the border is falling as some agencies pull out completely and others move into Burma, which is basically sexier in PR terms and where the western governments are focusing aid,” said Scadding.
The Mae Tao clinic in Mae Sot, which treats Burmese refugees and migrants, confirmed that they see about two children each week suffering from malnutrition so advanced that they require medical treatment. They have recently lost nearly half their budget.
Dr Cynthia Maung, founder of the Mae Tao clinic, told DVB that by June they will need to start suspending or terminating some programmes, in spite of rising patient numbers. Their food aid – which supports many of the 3,500 refugee children living in boarding houses – is likely to be slashed from ฿25 to ฿15 per child per day.
The Thai Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), which coordinates NGO activity in the camps, has already been forced to downsize food rations for refugees to two thirds of the recommended nutritional intake, leaving children, pregnant and breast-feeding women at particular risk.
Malnourished children are more likely to drop out of school and become more vulnerable to infectious diseases, such as HIV/AIDS and malaria. In recent months, a new drug-resistant strain of malaria has been spreading through the border communities with experts calling for “serious financial support” to tackle the epidemic.
Numerous other organisations, including the Karen Refugee Committee, Care Villa and ZOA International, have been affected by cuts in the past year.
“I think there is a feeling, especially in the European Union, that the problems in Burma are over and these inconvenient people should go home,” said Scadding.
Campaigners worry that pressing development challenges have become lost in the euphoria surrounding Burma’s recent election that swept democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi to victory.
Burmese authorities have already begun to explore the possibility of sending refugees home, recently sending a delegation to discuss resettlement possibilities in Karen state. But humanitarian groups insist that it is too early to encourage repatriation, possibly for another five years.
The Karen National Union signed a preliminary ceasefire with the Burmese government in January, and held union-level peace talks earlier this month. Although there is tentative optimism about the future, sporadic clashes and rights abuses are still being reported.
“We can only go back when there is peace and no more fighting in the border regions. We will only start planning repatriation when we believe there is a possibility of achieving genuine reconciliation,” said Saw Htun Htun, director of Mae La refugee camp.
The UN has also expressed caution. “The UN Refugee Agency is not ready to promote return to Myanmar [Burma], but of course we are closely watching developments inside Myanmar [Burma],” spokesperson Kitty McKinsey told DVB.
She doubts that funding cuts will compel refugees to return prematurely. “I don’t think the conditions in the camps yet are so dire that people would rather return to Burma. As recently as some months ago, people were still coming to the camps,” she said.
With over 600 staff members, the Mae Tao clinic treats up to 300 patients daily and feeds more than 500 people.
Even if refugees are able to return, it will need to sustain its funding. For years, Burmese residents have been crossing the border to access healthcare at the clinic, and this is not likely to change anytime soon. The World Health Organization (WHO) still ranks Burma’s health sector 190 out of 191 countries.
“Most of our inpatients are from Burma, who come for medical services they can’t access at home,” explains Dr Maung. “They often don’t have friends nearby so we provide them with food and accommodation.”
According to TBBC as many as 150,000 refugees live along the Thai border. About 30,000 of them are children.