• 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




UNHCR country pages


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

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

Abdu finds his voice in Germany

When bombs started raining down on Aleppo, Syria, in 2012, the Khawan family had to flee. According to Ahmad, the husband of Najwa and father of their two children, the town was in ruins within 24 hours.

The family fled to Lebanon where they shared a small flat with Ahmad's two brothers and sisters and their children. Ahmad found sporadic work which kept them going, but he knew that in Lebanon his six-year-old son, Abdu, who was born deaf, would have little chance for help.

The family was accepted by Germany's Humanitarian Assistance Programme and resettled into the small central German town of Wächtersbach, near Frankfurt am Main. Nestled in a valley between two mountain ranges and a forest, the village has an idyllic feel.

A year on, Abdu has undergone cochlear implant surgery for the second time. He now sports two new hearing aids which, when worn together, allow him to hear 90 per cent. He has also joined a regular nursery class, where he is learning for the first time to speak - German in school and now Arabic at home. Ahmed is likewise studying German in a nearby village, and in two months he will graduate with a language certificate and start looking for work. He says that he is proud at how quickly Abdu is learning and integrating.

Abdu finds his voice in Germany

Through the Clouds to Germany: One Syrian Family's Journey

On Wednesday, Germany launched a humanitarian programme to provide temporary shelter and safety to up to 5,000 of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries. A first group of 107 flew to Hanover in the northern city of Hanover. They will attend cultural orientation courses to prepare them for life over the next two years in Germany, where they will be able to work, study and access basic services. Among the group are Ahmad and his family, including a son who is deaf and needs constant care that was not available in Lebanon. The family fled from Syria in late 2012 after life became too dangerous and too costly in the city of Aleppo, where Ahmad sold car spare parts. Photographer Elena Dorfman followed the family in Beirut as they prepared to depart for the airport and their journey to Germany.

Through the Clouds to Germany: One Syrian Family's Journey

From refugee 'Lost Boy' to state education ministerPlay video

From refugee 'Lost Boy' to state education minister

The subject of the best-selling book What is the What, Valentino Achak Deng's journey has taken him from Sudanese 'Lost Boy' to education minister in his home state in South Sudan. He talks here about the causes of displacement, the risks of politicizing refugee resettlement, and the opportunities that come with staying positive.
IOM Director General Swing Remarks on the Resettlement of Refugees from Bhutan in NepalPlay video

IOM Director General Swing Remarks on the Resettlement of Refugees from Bhutan in Nepal

The UN refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) marked a major milestone: the resettlement of over 100,000 refugees from Bhutan in Nepal to third countries since the launch of the programme in 2007.
High Commissioner Guterres Remarks on the resettlement of Refugees from Bhutan in NepalPlay video

High Commissioner Guterres Remarks on the resettlement of Refugees from Bhutan in Nepal

The UN refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) marked a major milestone: the resettlement of over 100,000 refugees from Bhutan in Nepal to third countries since the launch of the programme in 2007.