EU official to visit Thailand, Discuss Burmese Refugee Camps – The Irrawaddy


BANGKOK—The lead European Union (EU) official on humanitarian issues will visit Thailand next week to meet government officials and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to assess the situation in Burmese refugees camps in northern Thailand.

The visit by EU Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva comes after NGOs and Burmese exile groups complained of cuts in humanitarian aid to refugees in the camps. Many of the refugee camps have been in place since the 1980s and their population is around 150,000.

Mathias Eick, the Regional Information Officer for ECHO, the European Commission’s (EC) humanitarian arm, said that the EC’s funding “has remained more or less constant over the last few years, at around 12.5 million euros per annum.”

Since 1994, “the European Commission has provided more than 140 million euros in support to refugees from Myanmar in Thailand,” Mr Eick added.

However, the EC—which functions as a sort-of cabinet within the EU’s dispersed and complex governing structures—is shifting its approach to Burmese refugees in Thailand. According to Mr Eick, “As the camps have existed for 25 years, and also serve as a pull factor for economic migrants and third-country resettlement seekers, there is now a need to move from a humanitarian relief focus to more sustainable long term solutions for the refugees.”

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a spokesperson for an organization working with refugees in the camps along the border between Thailand and Burma said that cuts in direct assistance to refugees is cutting into the basic nutrition and health-care needs of the people in the camps.

EU ambitions “to promote a more development-oriented approach to Burmese refugees in Thailand” will not work, says the refugee camp worker, “unless there are changes to Thai policy regarding refugees.” This currently restricts refugees to the camps, thereby limiting the options for those refugees who would prefer not to be reliant on humanitarian relief and making it unclear how the ECHO could implement its “more sustainable long terms solutions for the refugees.”

Georgieva is set to look into reports that some of those entering the camps are not refugees, but economic migrants, or people seeking repatriation to a country outside Thailand. However Thai authorities have not run a screening program for the camps since 2005, making it impossible for camp management officials to ascertain the motives and identity of everyone entering the camps. That uncertainty is not sufficient in itself to justify funding cuts, says the camp worker.

ECHO and the EC are responsible for 30-40 percent of all humanitarian spending by the EU and member states, an average of 640 million euros per annum, according to the ECHO website. In 2008, the most recent year that records are available on the ECHO website, the biggest EU member-state donors to ECHO were the United Kingdom (343 million euros), Germany (224 million euros), Denmark (178 million euros), Italy (141 million euros) and Ireland (117million euros).

Of these, Germany and Italy are thought to be the lead players promoting closer ties with the Burmese Government, as the EU “Common Position” on Burma comes up for its annual review in April. David Mathieson, a Burma expert at Human Rights Watch, said that “there are major divisions in the EU over Burma, and the divisions have always been there but have certainly been growing over the past few years, and are more pronounced since the elections.”

Burma’s elections held on November 7, 2010 produced a landslide win amid allegations of rigging and ballot-stuffing for the junta-backed party known as the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which took 76 percent of the vote. 25 percent of seats were reserved for current army officers in any case, and the new government is comprised mostly of military men, and is nominally headed by former Gen Thein Sein, who was prime minister under the old military regime.

Mathieson says that the view held in some quarters that the elections and formation of a new government mean that there is even a small window of change opening in Burma, is “a cereal-box platitude,” and that nothing has changed in how Burma is ruled since the elections.

The EU Common Position mandates some sanctions on the Burmese government, and Burmese groups in Europe have been lobbying for these sanctions to be at least retained in the upcoming review.

The EU envoy to Burma/Myanmar, Piero Fassino, is due in Thailand next week, two days before Georgieva’s visit. Requests to his office for comment on the upcoming visit were not answered at time of going to press, with Mr Fassino having just won the primary election contest in the race to become Mayor of Turin, Italy.

Despite divisions within the EU, it seems unlikely that sanctions will be eased at this juncture, according to people close to the debate.

Mark Farmaner, head of the Burma Campaign UK, said, “The regime has been so blatant in rigging the vote and controlling all aspects of government that it seems most EU countries skeptical about sanctions have had to concede there is no justification for lifting economic sanctions.”

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