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For Refugees at the Thailand-Burma Border, Livelihood Training is Critical

By Carey Durkin Treado

Lecturer, Department of Economics, University of Pittsburgh

Bridging Borders workshop participants at Ban Mai Nai Soi Refugee Camp.

(Photo by Sayro Paw of Bridging Borders)

For more than 30 years, nine “temporary” border camps have provided refuge to ethnic minority groups who fled violence and oppression under military rule in Burma. According to UNHCR, more than 90,000 people are spread across these camps.

For the refugees living in these protracted situations, education and livelihood training are critical elements of achieving their goals for the future: human rights, dignity, and freedom. During my trip this past Summer to camps along Thailand’s border with Burma, the refugee community clearly articulated these goals to me. As part of the Bridging Borders team, I visited two of the refugee camps, Mae La and Ban Mai Nai Soi in May 2019.

Using a university-community partnership model, Bridging develops social service, health care and education capacity in the camps through on-site workshops. The partnership is led by the College of Social Work at the University of Utah and includes both the local offices of international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), such as the International Rescue Committee and Jesuit Refugee Services, and community-based organizations (CBOs), such as the Karen Women’s Organization (KWO) and the Karenni Education Department (KnED). The Karen and Karenni are ethnic minorities in Burma and represent the largest minority groups in Mae La and Ban Mai Nai Soi.

According to Director Khu Bue Reh of the KnED, capacity-building is critical to the long-term resiliency of the community. He noted that it is more difficult for the CBOs like the KnED to find partners who are able to visit the camps and provide capacity-building support and training than it is to find partners who are able to provide financial support.

Bridging Borders helps to fill that gap by assembling a training team that will visit selected camps each year. The training team is comprised of faculty, students, affiliated specialists, and cultural consultants from the resettled Karen and Karenni communities in Salt Lake City, who are able to address the community needs identified by the Bridging Borders partners. As an economist with experience in refugee education issues, I was invited to join the team to support livelihood development training and to contribute to program evaluation.

Director Khu Bue Reh of the Karenni Education Department (KnED) at Ban Mai Nai Soi Refugee Camp.

(Photo by Carey Treado)

The inclusion of livelihood training represented a first in Bridging Border’s eleven-year history of working with refugees residing in the Thailand-Burma border camps. In the past, the requested training topics typically focused on social service needs, such as mental health, special education, and maternal and child health. The additional request for livelihood training arose from community interest in preparing for potential voluntary return to Burma. As an example of the preparation efforts, the KnED is working with education officials in Kayah State, the home State for the Karenni ethnic group, on mapping the education curriculum in the camp schools to the appropriate grade level so that students may continue their studies after repatriation.

In addition to education planning, workforce-ready skills are critical for returnees to successfully integrate into Burma’s current economy. However, within the camp setting, income-generation and skills development opportunities are limited. Some refugees receive a stipend as community-based assistants (CBAs), working with NGOs to provide medical, educational, and environmental services in the camps. Others are self-employed as the owners of small camp-based businesses, such as food and clothing shops, restaurants, barber shops, printing and internet connection services, water delivery, and motor bike repair. Despite these opportunities, the demand for additional livelihood training—and associated certification—is strong.

Participants from the Bridging Borders training session on livelihood development in Mae La Refugee Camp interview a local shop owner. (Photo by Carey Treado)

During my visit with the Bridging Borders team, I was impressed by the innovative and practical livelihood projects that partner organizations were developing in response to this demand. These projects include the following:

· The KnED is working with ACTED, a French humanitarian organization, to provide vocational training in hospitality, electrical wiring, computers, and motor bike repair.

· Jesuit Refugee Services is working on entrepreneurial skills development for youth who have dropped out of camp high schools.

· The IRC is working with a hotel-restaurant training center to prepare refugees for internships in the hospitality industry, which may enable graduates to apply for a work permit in Thailand.

· The Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration at the U.S. Department of State is working with the IRC on entrepreneurship programs, including Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLAs) that enable refugees to pool their resources into a community- based venture capital fund.

· The Borderline Collective works with several refugee community organizations to market handicrafts at a store and tea shop in Mae Sot town, which is close to Mae La Refugee Camp.

The Bridging Borders team met with each of the projects listed above, discussed strategic plans for expanding livelihood project efforts, and provided several training sessions for camp residents on business entrepreneurship and management. We also met with Humanity and Inclusion, which has placed a priority on developing partnerships that will provide inclusive livelihood training for refugees with disabilities—a population that will face additional challenges in repatriating successfully.

Through these meetings and training sessions, some members of the refugee community shared their anxiety about returning home and the conditions that might await them in Burma. They are aware that a successful return will depend on access to health care, education, and jobs. Livelihood projects are important elements of improving economic opportunities for the returnees and thus of allaying their fears. As one workshop participant explained, with education and training, they feel better prepared to face their many challenges with courage and bravery.

Certification ceremony at the Bridging Borders workshop in Ban Mai Nai Soi Refugee Camp.

(Photo by Sayro Paw of Bridging Borders)

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