Moving from Home to Home – Protracted Displacement and Durable Solutions in Thailand

With millions of tourists visiting Thailand every year for its sunny weather and white sand beaches it is not perhaps the first place that comes to mind when discussing humanitarian relief work. A fact much less known is that Thailand, for decades, has been welcoming and hosting refugees in nine camps along the Myanmar-Thai border.


The longstanding conflict in Myanmar, going back more than 25 years, between government forces and a number of other armed groups, has resulted in a large number of IDPs as well as more than a hundred thousand refugees fleeing to Thailand.

Today, as Myanmar has initiated peace negotiations and important economic and political reforms, the perception towards returning are slowly shifting within the refugee community and an increasing number of refugees are showing an interest in returning home.

Starting as a Trainee
Children in Umpium camp reflecting about their future in a PA I started my deployment as a Danish Refugee Council (DRC) Trainee in November 2014. Since then the deployment has been extended and I now work as part of the regular DRC Stand-by Member Roster. All through the deployment my focal point, Pia, and the rest of the staff in Copenhagen have not only provided outstanding professional support but also made me feel welcome as part of the team.

I really appreciate the straightforward, personal and efficient exchange with HQ that allows me to fully focus on the assignments at hand. As a Field Officer deployed to UNHCR's Thailand operation my main task is to support the office in its repatriation preparedness activities by setting up, systematizing and carrying out community outreach and participatory assessments.

It is incredibly important that UNHCR and its partners engage in meaningful participation with all women, men and children regardless of their background and that the refugees themselves are given an opportunity to identify their own priorities, find their primary problems and assist in developing the solutions.

Life in camp
When first arriving to Thailand's largest refugee camp, Mae La, I was struck by the immense impact humanitarian assistance can have when committed for the long term in a stable environment. With parts of the camp equipped with paved roads, an advanced water supply system, electricity, a flourishing civil society and plenty of livelihood activities the Mae La camp is a great example of humanitarian efforts beyond the relief phase.

In parallel UNHCR is continuing its important core protection activities such as prevention of SGBV, performing BID processes, providing legal assistance as well as finding Durable Solutions through resettlement and repatriation preparedness. However, despite the progress already achieved many challenges remain. Not being allowed to leave the camps without a special permission is one of the key concerns often raised by the refugees.

In line with Thai law, undocumented Burmese being found outside the camp are subject to arrest and deportation and refugees have no legal right to employment outside the camp.

Implications by protraction
Refugees in Mae La camp with newly issued e-cards As a result of the protracted nature of the conflict, most of the refugees living in the camps have well established lives and homes. In my work I spend most of the time visiting community members in their homes or meeting them in small discussion groups to hear about their plans for the future and concerns beyond the confinements of the camp they live in.

Some refugees have already made the tough decision to return or have arranged spontaneous "go and see visits". However, the large majority is still weighing the pros and cons of returning, with a stable peace being the number one condition that needs to be fulfilled. As one elderly woman in the Nupo camp expressed it: "I have seen so many armed groups fighting and then stop fighting and start again but I can only return when I'm sure there is a peace that can be trusted and when only one single army is left in Myanmar".

Although many of her family members have found durable solutions in the form of third country resettlement, she is nonetheless determined to, one day, go back to the village she was born.

In preparation for possible returns UNHCR is working closely with the two governments as well as with UNHCR Myanmar colleagues across the border. Mapping and monitoring refugee returnees, information sharing and risk assessments are all part of the preparedness plans.

At the time of doing this writing, the UNHCR Thailand operation is also deeply engaged in a comprehensive Verification Exercise using the latest technology to gather biometric data and issue individual e-cards. Besides providing an accurate population baseline, this will also facilitate any future organized voluntary return processes.

Future hopes
I can only imagine the mixture of hope and anxiety that are involved in making the decision to return. It is a decision that bears an immense impact on the future of the families and individuals involved.

However, to seek out and find durable solutions is the end goal that both UNHCR and the refugee community strive to accomplish and it is indeed rewarding to be part of that process. To see things move forward to the point where our work as humanitarians are hopefully no longer needed, makes me regain strength and hope.

There are still numerous challenges and it will take long before lasting solutions will have been found for all refugees residing in Thailand. But things are moving in the right direction, and I feel both awed at the resilience and patience shown by the refugees as well as inspired by their willingness to make the most of their situation and to still look to the future with hope despite the difficulties of the present.