Recent Karen Exodus Raises Questions about UNHCR Role

The latest joint attacks in Karen State by Burmese and Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) forces, which began on June 7, have forced an estimated 6,000 Karen people into Thai-Burmese border areas.

The targeted areas included Ler Per Her IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camp, which was shelled by mortars, according to Burma Campaign UK.
The slow response from the international community, including the UN, has frustrated Burma’s human right activists. Also, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has yet to take significant steps to assist the refugees, leaving them leaving at the mercy of local aid groups.

Indeed, the way the most recent Karen refugees have been assisted by the international community raises questions about the effectiveness of the refugee system itself.

The global refugee regime is based on a structure and philosophy that stems from the International Refugee Organization, the predecessor institution that provided the template for the UNHCR. As such, the current refugee system essentially serves states’ interest rather than refugees’ interest. In other words, the presence of refugees in general is considered a challenge to a state, and the UNHCR focuses on refugee containment and repatriation, rather than recognizing refugees’ rights to settle in a country of asylum or resettlement in a third country.

More broadly, the global refugee mission is to stabilize the world order composed of individual nation-states by containing refugee movements.
This philosophy is reflected in a 1993 statement by Sadako Ogata, the former UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Her point, which still holds true today was that, “The subject of refugees and displaced people is high on the list of international concerns today not only because of its humanitarian significance, but also because of its impact on peace, security and stability. The world cannot reach a new order without effectively addressing the problem of human displacement.”

The commissioner, significantly, describes refugees as a “problem” that destabilizes the world order. Solving the “problem” is for the ultimate purpose of the security of that order.

The painful irony is that it is this same world order with so-called sovereign nation-states that generates so many of the refugees in the world today.

Mostly minority and marginalized populations, such as the Karen, are driven out of their homes after being treated as “enemies” by a military regime that has autonomous control of the state apparatus.

While recent attacks are difficult to frame in terms of Burmese versus Karen, given the collusion of the DKBA with regime forces, it is clear that this is a struggle over economic resources as well as geographical control. Still, this is just one incident in the political hang-over of the sovereign state system that the UNHCR is mandated to protect.

In any case, Karen refugees are byproducts of a political struggle versus state oppression. Yet, the UNHCR is mandated to handle the plight of the Karen through charity work in its role as a purely humanitarian, yet “non-political,” institution. This allows the UNHCR to refrain from engagement over political issues that otherwise would implicate it in issues of sovereignty.

In addition to overriding philosophical issues, the UNHCR’s protection practices also raise problematic questions. For example, its provision of providing only minimum assistance to refugees while assuming that providing maximum assistance would attract more refugees.
In addition, there has been a recent shift towards a so-called “preventive protection” stance under a rubric of “the right to remain at home.” This is designed to prevent refugees from seeking refuge across a border by providing “safety zones” within conflict areas.

Ler Per Her IDP camp, which was shelled last week, is part of this strategy of “preventive protection,” which shows the fallibility of so-called “safety zones.”

The UNHCR humanitarian work cannot be isolated from a donor country’s domestic immigration policy.

That the first strategy of donor countries is to prevent refugees from resettling abroad is clearly reflected in the EU Presidency’s Declaration on Karen villagers, dated June 11, 2009, which said, “The EU reiterates its commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Burma/Myanmar. The EU calls instead for the conditions to be created that allow the return of all refugees.”

Here, insistence on “return” in theory can serve as a quick-fix but it can ignore the actual experiences and fate of refugees in much of the world, including the Karen refugees in Thailand. Seeing refugees as temporarily displaced people can serve to sentence millions of people to a life in refugee camps, supposing that they will eventually “return” to their country.

For example, Kitty McKinsey, a regional spokesperson for the UNHCR, told Spectrum magazine in an interview on the most recent wave of displaced Karen villagers, “They all say they want go back as soon as possible.” A UN spokesperson in Geneva, William Spindler, expressed a similar view.

It is understood that refugees miss their home like everyone else, but UNHCR is wrong to insist on that as a core interpretation of policy. It knows from experience that refugees often end up living in refugee centers for decades.

It should go without saying that refugees, including new arrivals, should be entitled to earn a living outside refugee camps, rather than being locked up inside, only to be turned into a modern version of “white men’s (and women’s) burdens.”

Yet, highlighting such problems with UNHCR role, we can not its role in saving people’s lives in emergency situation and providing life-sustaining aid. Neither is this to discount its heroic staffers in the field who are fighting hard for refugee rights.

Field staffers, as well as executive officers, are in a position to critically reflect on UNHCR’s limitations. Rather than reproducing UNHCR’s “depoliticized humanitarianism,” progressive members and staffers should move beyond technical-centrism and emergency management mentality to address the disruptive aspects of the nation-state system as it now exists.

Similarly, critiques of donor countries do not underplay the thousands of former refugees who are now able to earn livelihoods in these countries. Yet, donor countries that are able to effectively supplement their domestic labor force with immigrant labor must do other than part in dealing fairly with refugees who fleeing from war with little hope of stability in their lives.
Irrawaddy analysis

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