“Before You Were Born, Your Mother Ran” Displacement and Disillusion in south-east Myanmar

Chloe Sydney

Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre’s Invisible Majority Thematic Series, December 2019



Around 162,000 people, predominantly ethnic Karen, remain internally displaced in southeast Myanmar due to armed conflict between Myanmar’s army (Tatmadaw) and the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), one of the longest ongoing ethnic conflicts in the world. Violent counterinsurgency operations have included direct attacks against civilians, persecution and forced recruitment. Despite a nationwide ceasefire agreement signed in 2015, clashes continue, leading to new displacement. This study examines the relationship between internal displacement, cross-border movements and durable solutions in southeast Myanmar, focusing on drivers of displacement, priorities and preconditions for voluntary return, and obstacles and opportunities for durable solutions. The analysis is based on a preliminary desk review, a (non-representative) survey and qualitative interviews with IDPs and returning refugees in Myanmar, and refugees in Thailand (primarily from the Karen ethnic group).

Key findings:

  • Multiple displacements precede cross-border movements. A third of survey respondents had been displaced more than five times, often hiding in the jungle before returning to their homes. Cross-border movement is often a last resort; nearly half of the refugees and returning refugees surveyed were internally displaced before crossing into Thailand. Barriers to cross border movements include lack of safety en route to Thailand and the cost of transportation.
  • Aid has been cut to IDP camps, but barriers to return remain. An estimated 100,000 IDPs are living in forced relocation sites (resembling villages) in government-controlled areas. Most other IDPs are thought to be hiding in the jungle. A minority of IDPs in southeast Myanmar lives in camps. Ee Tu Hta IDP camp hosts approximately 2,400 IDPs. A decline in donor support has affected the provision of food aid and services. Most surveyed IDPs intend to return to their areas of origin in the future, despite better safety in Ee Tu Hta. Insecurity continues to be a key barrier to return.
  • Refugees in Thailand face protection challenges and lack of recognition. Around 95,000 refugees from Myanmar live in nine refugee camps in Thailand. In addition, an estimated 50 percent of undocumented migrants from Myanmar in Thailand may also have grounds to be recognized as refugees. Refugees and undocumented migrants are not permitted to work in Thailand, but many find work informally, exposing them to exploitation from employers and threats of deportation. Decreased donor support is contributing to a reduction in monthly rice rations and worsening service provision in the camps, which may be encouraging potentially premature returns to Myanmar. Conflict and violence continue to be the main barriers to return.
  • Expectations regarding refugee returns have not been met. Positive steps towards democratization in Myanmar in 2012 led the international community to expect rapid returns. However, only around 19,000 refugees have returned from Thailand’s refugee camps; the overwhelming majority of these returns have been spontaneous (without assistance). Only 729 refugees have returned through UNHCR’s facilitated voluntary repatriation operation. Impediments to facilitated returns include concern about the breakdown of the ceasefire agreement and fear of providing personal details to the government.