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Burma: Refugees' lives in the balance

Perhaps it's not unsurprising that when cyclone Nargis struck southern Burma, my thoughts went first to a community of internal refugees close to the Thai border in the north who would have been physically unaffected. These were the people of Wan Bai Pay* who had been graceful in their hospitality to me earlier this year and who had entrusted me with their traumatic stories (of slave labour extracted by Burma's military, of beatings, murder and rape) with the simple request: ‘Tell the world about us.' (For more information you can read my report on Wan Bai Pay).

Their struggle to beat the odds and maintain daily life with a measure of dignity was admirable and heartwarming; but it was also precarious. Limited to a tiny radius of movement and with no opportunities for well-paid work, these people and their continued security were dangerously dependent on the goodwill of others. And with world food prices rising, there were already signs that such goodwill might be rationed out in smaller doses. In the bare bones community clinic there were already announcements of  cuts to their food rations. And members of the activist groups who work to reach out to the refugees in camps perched on either side of the Thai-Burma border were anxious that more severe shortages were looming.

So even though I knew they had been spared the cyclone, I feared that the voices of their struggle might get lost in the aftermath. Then the terrible reality of that aftermath hit, and atrocities both of omission and commission by Burma's rulers magnified the horror.

Now an urgent appeal has reached me, signed by 12 Thailand-based Burmese activist groups.   ‘We are deeply grateful to international donors for their continuous humanitarian support over the years to hundreds of thousands of people displaced by SPDC [State Peace and Development Council, the official name of the Burmese junta] military offensives in Burma. This support is currently enabling over 140,000 refugees to live in dignity as communities in camps, and maintain hopes of returning to their homes inside Burma.

‘The present funding crisis is now sparking new fears and uncertainty among the refugees. Having already endured unspeakable abuses by SPDC troops, they are facing the threat of starvation, community disruption, and possible loss of refuge... The lives of over 140,000 refugees are at stake. We urge international donors to respond immediately to this crisis and prevent another unnecessary catastrophe.'

While every effort needs to be made to reach the victims of cyclone Nargis, no matter what the obstructions and frustrations, this other relief effort which has been ongoing for over 20 years must be prevented from collapsing. The appeal being made by the activist groups has been prompted by a funding shortfall (due to the steep rise of commodity prices) of the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC). This is a consortium of Western charities that gathers funds, mainly from governments, and channels them to refugees in camps through on-the-ground groups. In a press release they stated: ‘..soaring global rice and oil prices during the past few months have left the primary provider of food aid US$6.8 million (€4.3 million) under-funded for 2008. Unless additional funds are urgently secured, rations will have to be reduced to half the international minimum standard of 2,100 kcals/person/day from August.'

Basically this means a starvation ration. If this comes to pass, there is bound to be a domino effect. The focus will shift from preparing for a better future to mere survival. Educational activities and health provision may suffer, as the effort to get enough food becomes topmost. I look back on my photographs of the cheerful schoolchildren of Wan Bai Pay and I can't bear to think what could happen to their lives, lives which for too many have already been marked by fleeing the murder of their parents and siblings. Will the community itself, so insistent on peace and giving space to everyone of its inhabitants when I visited, become riven by division? Will these families be forced by hunger to return to areas to face the unceasing violence they once fled? Will youngsters disappear into the underground world of sex work to try and support their loved ones?

So much could go wrong, where so much has been going right. The channels for providing assistance to Burmese refugees have been established over years and they are effective. This cash crunch could completely disrupt them. The TBBC's appeal for emergency funds has received some pledges for extra support from the governments of the Netherlands, Ireland and Poland. But, as they put it, ‘time is running out' and other governments must come through.

Please write to your government representative, reminding them of this crisis and urging them to act.

Fragile refuge - a view of Wan Bai Pay / PHOTO: Dinyar Godrej / New Internationalist

* Wan Bai Pay, which means refugee camp in the Shan language, is not the real name of the camp, which cannot be revealed for the security of its inhabitants.

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