• Text size Normal size text | Increase text size by 10% | Increase text size by 20% | Increase text size by 30%

It's a long way from Myanmar for Karen refugees

News Stories, 28 January 2008

© UNHCR/ S.O'Brien
Resettled Karen refugee Sa Nga with his wife Wau Dey and their son.

CASTLEBAR, Ireland, January 28 (UNHCR) After three months in Ireland, Sa Nga and his family are struggling to master the English language but say their new home offers many more opportunities than a refugee camp in Thailand.

The former driver, his wife, six children and father-in-law are among the first ethnic Karen refugees from Myanmar accepted for resettlement by Ireland. They are starting new lives in the scenic north-west after last year leaving the confines of Ban Don Yang camp in the tropical forests of Thailand.

The minority Karen have suffered persecution for decades and nearly 140,000 are living in closed Thai refugee camps after fleeing across the border. The Thai government, which does not let them leave the camps, now accepts that the Karens are unlikely to be able to go back to Myanmar any time soon and has accepted resettlement as a solution for some of them.

UNHCR has since early 2005 helped resettle more than 20,000 Myanmar refugees in Thailand including Karens and other minority groups in countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, Finland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden and Norway and Ireland.

The first 52 Karens resettled in Ireland, including Sa Nga and his family, arrived last September and were put through an eight-week orientation programme in the north-west town of Ballyhaunis in County Mayo. They were then moved to new homes nearby. A second group of 45 arrived in Ballyhaunis in December.

UNHCR Representative in Ireland Manuel Jordão recently visited Ballyhaunis and nearby Castlebar to see how the Karen families were coping with new services, schools, doctors, even things as basic as household appliances.

"Ireland has made a big effort to ensure its resettled refugees receive the best start with support and orientation, basic facts about the country, language tuition and advice on how to use services. These stepping stones will help resettled families use their own talents to make a life for themselves here," Jordão said.

"We feel we are being looked after well in Ireland and we are very grateful for that," Sa Nga told the UNHCR visitor, speaking through an interpreter at the family's new home in Castlebar.

Lack of English is the biggest hurdle that he and the others face, but they realize that they must master the language if they are to become independent. "It's very important for us to learn English," said Sa Nga's wife, Wau Dey, adding that if a family member became ill they would need to communicate with a doctor.

The Karens also understand that English will help them make the most of the opportunities in Ireland. "Irish people have many more opportunities compared to what we had in the camps," said the head of one family.

This is a sentiment echoed by others questioned by UNHCR. Life in the nine crowded government-run camps along Thailand's border with Myanmar is hard. The refugees live in cramped bamboo shelters, dependent on UNHCR and non-governmental organizations for protection, food, schooling and health care. The Thai government does not allow them outside for work or higher education.

The UN refugee agency hopes Ireland will accept more people for resettlement in the future. Ireland increased its annual resettlement quota from 40 to 200 in 2006, but there has been no increase since.

"UNHCR always needs more resettlement places, so I am always going to be asking for an increase in the Irish quota," Jordão said, while adding that "it also only makes sense to ask for an increase if the Irish authorities tell me it would be manageable for them."

In 2008, UNHCR expects to refer some 60,000 people for resettlement in about 20 countries that accept vulnerable refugees who cannot go back home or integrate in host countries. Refugees from Iraq, Myanmar and Bhutan are likely to figure prominently.

As one of the countries with a resettlement programme, Ireland "stands out as a shining example of how smaller nations can share the global responsibility to protect vulnerable refugees," said Jordão.

By Steven O'Brien in Dubin, Ireland

• DONATE NOW •

 

• GET INVOLVED • • STAY INFORMED •

UNHCR country pages

Resettlement

An alternative for those who cannot go home, made possible by UNHCR and governments.

UNHCR Resettlement Handbook and Country Chapters

July 2011 edition of the UNHCR Resettlement Handbook.

Resettlement from Tunisia's Choucha Camp

Between February and October 2011, more than 1 million people crossed into Tunisia to escape conflict in Libya. Most were migrant workers who made their way home or were repatriated, but the arrivals included refugees and asylum-seekers who could not return home or live freely in Tunisia.

UNHCR has been trying to find solutions for these people, most of whom ended up in the Choucha Transit Camp near Tunisia's border with Libya. Resettlement remains the most viable solution for those registered as refugees at Choucha before a cut-off date of December 1, 2011.

As of late April, 14 countries had accepted 2,349 refugees for resettlement, 1,331 of whom have since left Tunisia. The rest are expected to leave Choucha later this year. Most have gone to Australia, Norway and the United States. But there are a more than 2,600 refugees and almost 140 asylum-seekers still in the camp. UNHCR continues to advocate with resettlement countries to find solutions for them.

Resettlement from Tunisia's Choucha Camp

A Place to Call Home(Part 2): 1996 - 2003

This gallery highlights the history of UNHCR's efforts to help some of the world's most disenfranchised people to find a place called home, whether through repatriation, resettlement or local integration.

After decades of hospitality after World War II, as the global political climate changed and the number of people cared for by UNHCR swelled from around one million in 1951, to more than 27 million people in the mid-1990s, the welcome mat for refugees was largely withdrawn.

Voluntary repatriation has become both the preferred and only practical solution for today's refugees. In fact, the great majority of them choose to return to their former homes, though for those who cannot do so for various reasons, resettlement in countries like the United States and Australia, and local integration within regions where they first sought asylum, remain important options.

This gallery sees Rwandans returning home after the 1994 genocide; returnees to Kosovo receiving reintegration assistance; Guatemalans obtaining land titles in Mexico; and Afghans flocking home in 2003 after decades in exile.

A Place to Call Home(Part 2): 1996 - 2003

Out of Harm's Way in Romania

Peaceful days and a safe environment is probably more than these Palestinian and Sudanese refugees expected when they were stuck in a desert camp in Iraq. Now they are recovering at a special transit centre in the Romanian city of Timisoara while their applications for resettlement in a third country are processed.

Most people forced to flee their homes are escaping from violence or persecution, but some find themselves still in danger after arriving at their destination. UNHCR uses the centre in Romania to bring such people out of harm's way until they can be resettled.

The Emergency Transit Centre (ETC) in Timisoara was opened in 2008. Another one will be formally opened in Humenné, Slovakia, within the coming weeks. The ETC provides shelter and respite for up to six months, during which time the evacuees can prepare for a new life overseas. They can attend language courses and cultural orientation classes.

Out of Harm's Way in Romania

Iraq: Uprooted and living in a warehousePlay video

Iraq: Uprooted and living in a warehouse

An Iraqi man who turned down resettlement to the U.S. in 2006 tells how it feels now to be a "refugee" in his own country, in limbo, hoping to restart life in another Iraqi city.
Emergency Resettlement – One Family's Journey to a New LifePlay video

Emergency Resettlement – One Family's Journey to a New Life

After their family fled Syria, young brothers Mohamed and Youssef still were not safe. Unable to access medical treatment for serious heart and kidney conditions, they and the rest of their family were accepted for emergency resettlement to Norway.
A new life for refugees from BhutanPlay video

A new life for refugees from Bhutan

They fled to Nepal from Bhutan amid ethnic tensions in the early 1990s. Now, many of the slightly more than 100,000 refugees have been offered the possibility of resettlement to another country.