Ethics in Working with Refugees: Community Perspectives and Principles of Partnership
Asia Pacific Regional Consultation on Refugee Rights
20-21 November 2008
Victor Biak Lian, Chin Human Rights Organization
Good afternoon: It is indeed a pleasure to be a part of this important conference, and especially to be a panellist on this particular session. Being a refugee myself for many years and having worked with refugee communities in many different contexts, including here in Malaysia, I have come across a wide range of important ethical issues and dilemmas that need to be addressed in order to more effectively meet the challenges facing refugees. Of course I do realize that there is no one single ethical formula to work with refugees; but I believe that two important considerations do stand out –that our work should depend on the needs and wants of refugees themselves, and that respect and dignity should be the underpinning principles when working with refugees.
My discussion today will be based largely on my experiences with Burmese refugees in India, Thailand and here in Malaysia as well as my own life as a refugee. Burma arguably is the largest refugee-producing country in the region, and it is predictable from the worsening trends in human rights and humanitarian situations inside the country in recent months that more people will continue to cross into neighbouring countries. The 65 years jail sentences handed down last week to pro-democracy activists was the latest example of how dangerous life is inside Burma for both ordinary citizens and those wishing to exercise their fundamental freedoms. The military regime is now embarking on a brutal mission to eliminate any voice of dissent before the year 2010 planned elections. In eastern Burma, fresh military offensive against the Karens, once again are forcing thousands of civilians to flee across the border into Thailand or are being internally displaced. In western Burma, hundreds of people from Chin State are fleeing to neighbouring India due to severe shortages of food due to bamboo flowering that occur every 50 years, a natural tragedy is made worse by ongoing practice of forced labour and arbitrary policies of the regime.
An effective regional response to refugee problems is a necessity given the continuing trend of steady outflow from a country like Burma. The challenges are immense, but there are only so few actors, both within individual countries and regionally to meet the needs and demands of ever increasing number of forced migrants in the region.
Unfortunately, more governments in the Asia-Pacific region are not only Non-signatory to international treaties relating to the status of refugees, but do not have specific national legislation that protects the rights of refugees. The very few civil society groups that exist in the region are overwhelmed or under-resourced to effectively meet the needs of refugees in the region. This is understandably a difficult challenge, especially when there is only a very limited space for civil society groups to freely manoeuvre, and when the policies of their governments are hostile to the rights of refugees. But again, this is not to say such situations justify inaction.
The UNHCR has been virtually the main international actor when it comes to refugees in the region. This is especially commendable since more governments in the region are not a signatory to the UNHCR statutes on refugees. This is why a civil society initiative is greatly needed in the region.
Having said that, I think that even within the limited space, it is important that more civil society groups in the Asia-Pacific region put focus on refugee issues as part of their larger human rights work. At the same time, those who are already engaged in providing services to refugees should also remind themselves of the need to recognize the importance of incorporating the principles of partnership, a sense of respect and dignity in their work with refugees. What is often missed, in my opinion, is the basic fact that refugees are human beings, who deserve the same respect and dignity as every other human being. The fact is that many time service providers tend to forget that beneficiaries of their services are partners to their programmes. This kind of practice by both civil society groups and intergovernmental agencies responsible for provision and protection of refugees often serves to undermine the goodwill and purpose of their own services.
Another important factor, and this is especially true for Burmese refugees in Malaysia, is that access to certain services are different for those who are recognized by UNHCR and those who are not. This is an area of great concern for refugee communities. Unrecognized refugees find themselves in a very difficult situation when it comes to dealing with hospitals and other health related services in times of sickness. For example, only recognized refugees in Malaysia are eligible for treatment. Recognition also provides some protection during immigration raids, arrests, and potential deportation to the border. This is very unfortunate because the only thing that differentiates them is a piece of paper that identifies them as a person who has registered with or is recognized by the UNHCR. They all fled the same circumstances, but the majority of people unfortunately do not enjoy the same kind of protection and services as those who are fortunate enough to be registered with or recognized by UNHCR. This is an area that needs to be looked at more seriously by all actors if more people are to be protected. Burmese refugees in Malaysia often refer to UNHCR papers as “certificate of recognition as a human being.” This is sad because what this essentially means is that they are really nobody or not a human being unless they get recognized. Ultimately, this creates a diminished sense of self-respect, dignity and worth among the refugees.
As you know, Thailand hosts the largest number of refugees from Burma. There are at least 150, 000 refugees in different camps along the Thai-Burma borders. Many of you might have heard about the comparison of a “human zoo” to situations in these camps or “human warehousing.”
Refugees are too often regarded as mere labels, abstract numbers or even as sub-human at times. Unfortunately, these views and negative perceptions are unwittingly reinforced by the very people who are there to help and protect them. This is why education and public awareness programs are extremely important as part of a long term strategy for the protection of refugees in the region. But such efforts need to start from within members of civil society groups and other pertinent actors by adopting a more ethical approach in their work with refugees.
In this context, I strongly believe that a rights-based approach is necessary in order to ensure the success of any programs or services for refugees. Key ingredients of this approach, in my opinion, should include such basic concepts as dignity and respect, consultation and principles of partnership. Appearing condescending is a risk service providers should always be aware of to ensure a viable and successful service provision.
Before I conclude this discussion, I think it is necessary to mention very briefly about the community initiatives that are evolving here in Malaysia, for an example to highlight how imperative it is to work with such community-based initiatives. Since not everyone here is familiar about the refugee situation in Malaysia, I will just give a brief history. The Chins are one of the first ethnic groups from Burma to start coming to Malaysia as refugees. In 2001 we found that there were large numbers of Chin in Malaysia. Because there were few, if any, Malaysian NGOs working with these people, it became necessary to establish some structure to assist those coming from Burma. That is when the Chin Refugee Center was formed, which is still functioning and serving the Chin people today. The purpose of CRC is to register Chins coming from Burma, help bring their cases to UNHCR, and provide much-needed services to the community. Through CRC, the Chin community began to work closely with the UNHCR to ensure Chin could receive refugee recognition. Because the Chin children could not receive an education in the Malaysian schools, CRC set up informal schools. They also began providing health services to ensure the sick could access clinics and hospitals in Malaysia. They also have a shelter for at risk women and children. When a Chin is arrested or a neighbourhood is raided by immigration, the CRC provides assistance. This is just some of the things the CRC center is doing.
But the Chin are not the only community from Burma here in Malaysia today who are now organized and helping their own communities. All the ethnic groups from Burma have replicated the Chin model and are now providing similar services to their respective communities. This is very important since there is no one better to provide services to these communities than the communities themselves. This cannot be disputed.
Despite all these great works the communities have arranged on their own, they are also struggling for their own survival here. But they are not receiving the support they need to ensure their communities are properly cared for and protected. Many have very little resources of their own to provide for their communities. For this reason, we have initiated the Burma Ethnic Assistance Program (BEAP) last year. BEAP is a self-formed coalition representing the seven ethnic communities from Burma living in Malaysia. Through BEAP, the hope is that these communities will be able to strengthen their capacity to provide for themselves, learn from each other, and benefit from a unified front. BEAP is still very much a work-in-progress and its success depends greatly on support from Malaysian NGOs that are represented here today as well as UNHCR. However, this is the kind of bottom-up community initiative that, if adequately supported, has the potential to become a model project for the support of refugee communities.
In Thailand, we have learned that this is possible. The services in the refugee camps set up on the Thai-Burma border are fully provided for by the refugee communities themselves with the support of NGOs. As the Malaysian NGOs come together and become more organized and more interested in the refugee issues, it is important to work with and sometimes defer to the communities themselves. Any other model can be disempowering, demoralizing, and detrimental for the communities.
I also would like to bring to your attention about Burmese refugees in India. As I noticed that some of Indian NGOs are here in this conference and they may be able to add some of the points I miss to mention here. As you know, India host the larger refugees from Sri Lanka and Tibet as concerned refugees of the Government of India while cases of Afghanis and Burmese, Somali and a few other countries such as Iranian are determined by UNHCR as refugee. UNHCR is dealing with Burmese refugees who are able to approach UNHCR office in Delhi while thousands of refugees from Burma especially the Chin refugees in Mizoram are not enjoying the services and protection of any kind. They often get arrested as foreigner case and sometime they got deportation to Burma by the local authority. The presence of UNHCR is not allowed in the North eastern India.
Finally, the needs are simply too great and the challenges are enormous. But I believe that through a regional initiative such as this important conference, a more effective response to refugee problems will emerge in the region.
Victor Biak Lian