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In search of freedom, Burmese refugees head for new life in America

In search of freedom, Burmese refugees head for new life in America

Nearly 7,000 Karen refugees from Myanmar have been resettled in the United States, Canada, Australia and other countries as UNHCR's resettlement programme from camps in Thailand moves into high gear.
13 October 2006
Teacher Liner Shua leans out of a bus window to say goodbye to one of his students at Tham Hin camp. He headed off with his family to a new life in the United States.

THAM HIN REFUGEE CAMP, Thailand, October 13 (UNHCR) - Burmese-language teacher trainer Liner Shua was a beloved figure in this camp for Karen refugees from Myanmar. So on the day the 50-year-old refugee left with his family for a new life in the United States, dozens of his current and former students turned out to see him off with songs, prayers, smiles and plenty of tears.

"I am very happy," he said in a quiet moment. "We have been refugees for 10 years, so I am thankful that America gave us a chance to go there." Shua was one of nearly 7,000 refugees who have been resettled from camps in Thailand to third countries since 2004.

With programmes by the US, Canada and Australia to accept large numbers from Thailand, departures have recently increased significantly. In September alone, 1,119 refugees left Thailand for resettlement. Of those, 820 went to the United States and 93 to Canada. Other resettlement countries are Finland, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.

"Of course, refugees usually prefer to go back to their home countries," said Hasim Utkan, UNHCR's Thailand-based regional representative. "But these refugees have been in exile for 10 years or more and, unfortunately, there is little hope that conditions will be right for them to return home any time soon.

"For them, resettlement to third countries is a good solution that offers the first real glimmer of hope they have had in years. In Tham Hin, for example, you can feel the change in the mood since the resettlement programme started. You can feel the excitement and the optimism," Utkan added.

Even before he got on the bus to the airport to begin his long journey to Syracuse, New York with his wife and two young children, Shua was thinking ahead. "Before, in Myanmar, I was a policeman, so I want to be a policeman in the United States and study law. My second option is to become a teacher, but first I will have to learn English," he said through an interpreter.

"Because I will have freedom, anything's possible," Shua added. Freedom is a word the Karen refugees in overcrowded Tham Hin use often. Under Thai regulations, refugees are not allowed to leave the government-run camps and are subject to arrest and deportation to Myanmar if they do.

During his August visit to Tham Hin, High Commissioner António Guterres won a commitment from the Thai government to work towards granting greater freedom for education and employment outside the camps.

"We have been living in a small place in the camp," said They Lar Htoo, 52, as he left for the US with his wife, 22-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter. "Now we have a chance to go to America and I hope the future will be brighter. My children will get a proper education and they will have a good future. Here we don't have a chance to go outside. We don't have freedom," added Htoo, a Baptist pastor.

Visiting Tham Hin with Guterres in August, US Assistant Secretary of State Ellen Sauerbrey said the pace of resettlement from Thai camps should accelerate, now that roadblocks caused by anti-terrorism legislation have been removed.

Next year, she pledged, her country would accept thousands from Tham Hin and begin processing Karen refugees from six other camps as well. Along the border with Myanmar, Thailand has nine camps housing some 140,000 refugees. "We welcome you with open arms," said Sauerbrey, head of the State Department's bureau of population, refugees and migration.

So far this year, 1,100 Karen refugees have gone to the US from Tham Hin and the number will likely hit 2,700 by the end of December. Next year, said UNHCR representative Utkan, "with increased commitments from the major resettlement countries, we are aiming to resettle 15,000 refugees from Thailand."

"This underlines the importance of resettlement as a durable solution for refugees who have been languishing in exile for a decade, or sometimes longer," he said. "Resettlement is one valuable way of ending protracted refugee situations when the other two durable solutions - voluntary repatriation or local integration - are not possible."

By Kitty McKinsey in Tham Hin Refugee Camp, Thailand