When your homeland is no longer a safe place to belong

Myanmar faces one of the worst displacement crises in the world.

Just across the border from popular Thai tourist destinations such as Chiang Rai, more than three million people have been forced to flee their homes. Many of them have been displaced for decades.

With no reliable access to education, food or employment, people who are displaced become largely dependent on aid for survival. Act for Peace is working with a local organisation to place refugees at the centre of decision-making in camps along the Thai-Myanmar border, helping empower them to rebuild their lives.

When the 2021 military coup took place, newly elected parliamentarians were arrested, plunging Myanmar into chaos as nationwide protests turned into a brutal military crackdown. This led to an armed resistance across the country.

Three years on and the situation in Myanmar is critical.

2023 saw violence intensify, resulting in significant civilian casualties and increased numbers of people displaced. According to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, the humanitarian needs are exacerbated due to reduced humanitarian access, deepening poverty and devasting natural disasters. These complex, intersecting crises are intensifying the needs, impacting people’s ability to cope, and complicating the search for solutions.

A key challenge is getting aid into areas no longer controlled by the military, according to Act for Peace Senior Policy and Protection Advisor, James Thomson.

“Most major donors have been funding large UN and International Non-Government Organisations (INGOs) working in areas of military control that are now shrinking, but they haven’t been able to provide the aid needed in areas now controlled by armed resistance groups,” explains James.

But our local partner, The Border Consortium (TBC) can.

As the conflict intensifies in Southeast Myanmar, local community organisations have sprung into action since the coup, running a sophisticated multi-million-dollar emergency response operation. This lifeline is increasingly supported by our local partner and donors as it is the only way to get aid to non-military-controlled areas.

With tens of thousands of refugees arriving in Thailand since the coup, and 70,000 already in the camps, backing refugee leaders to improve the camps is critical.

Local organisation, TBC, has been working with refugees fleeing the conflict in Myanmar since 1984. Act for Peace has been a member of The Border Consortium for 40 years and is involved in strategy, governance, fundraising and advocacy.

Act for Peace is backing their project called ‘Lead from Within’ to build refugee leadership. This ensures they are at the centre of decision-making in camps along the Thai-Myanmar border.

The Lead from Within project provides refugees with a dignified pathway to build their leadership skills and have autonomy over the decisions that impact their lives.

“Refugees have the right, desire, and ability to manage their own affairs. When they do, the programs are more relevant, they’re owned by the community, and they have lasting impact,” says James.

Mu Taw (pictured below) has been living in a refugee camp on the border for over 15 years and is the vice chairperson for the camp committee.

“I am interested in supporting newcomers who are facing challenges. I want to help them because as fellow human beings they are entitled to basic human rights.”

Photo credit: Sharni Boyal/Act for Peace

The project, funded by Act for Peace supporters, focuses on supporting refugee-elected camp committees. They provide training, decision-making and leadership within the camps, as well as advocacy on local integration.

“The camp committee essentially is a professional body of refugees that gets together to allow for self-governance,” explains James.

“So rather than external NGOs deciding on what should happen, it’s the camp committees that make the decisions about what aid is needed and how it gets distributed in the camps.

“It really helps elevate refugees into a leadership position. It’s a lot more efficient and sustainable and it builds real competencies for refugees.”

Saw Meh (pictured below) is a security officer in the camp where she lives. She specialises in women’s security, supporting women as an investigator into gender-based violence.

“When it comes to cases involving women, having another man investigate the situation may not always be appropriate. So, there’s a need for a courageous woman to take on this type of work.”

Photo credit: JP/Act for Peace

Act for Peace also supports human rights monitoring and advocacy for Rohingya refugees from Myanmar.

“We’re monitoring refugee boat movements and working out, which boat is missing, which boat needs to be rescued. And which governments we need to advocate to, to allow refugees to disembark on their shores and get access to asylum and services,” says James.

“There’s been a threefold increase in the number of Rohingya refugee boats leaving Myanmar and Bangladesh where one million refugees still live in camps after the 2017 military-backed genocide.

“At least 500 people have died at sea. The only reason the world knows is because we’re monitoring and raising the alert when boats are in distress. We also arranged boat rescues, which saved the lives of hundreds of people.”

With no end to the ongoing conflict in sight, it’s clear that long-term partnerships with local organisations focused on refugee leadership is key. We will continue to act together to provide safety in exile for our Southeast Asian neighbours escaping conflict in Myanmar.

Help refugees on the Thai Myanmar border have a safe place to belong by making a gift.

Act for Peace gratefully acknowledges the support of the Australian Government through the Australian NGO Cooperation Program (ANCP).

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